RUGBY UNION: Lions record lures Guscott

RUGBY UNION
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The Independent Online
THE PRINCE of Centres may be getting on a bit but, rather like the Prince of Wales, he does not see why mere age should prevent him assuming his rightful place on the throne. Jeremy Guscott yesterday committed himself to another year of Premiership rugby with Bath and, while England's midfield maestro would no doubt insist that he was taking things a season at a time, this latest extension to his contract suggests that the idea of a fourth Lions tour in 2001 might be lurking in the back of that shrewdest of rugby minds.

Guscott can already pride himself on his membership of a select band of British and Irish internationals who made the Lions Test side on three consecutive tours: Gareth Edwards, Mike Gibson and Willie John McBride, who had the longevity to feature in no fewer than five separate parties, are among the legends with whom he is bracketed. But no-one in Lions history has ever played in three major series-winning sides and, with the 1989 and 1997 triumphs safely stowed in his designer kitbag, that particular Holy Grail may lure the 33-year- old onwards for another 28 months or so.

For the moment, Guscott has signed himself up until the end of May 2000. "I wouldn't have put pen to paper if I wasn't enjoying my rugby," he said yesterday. "I don't feel old at all: in fact, I feel as though I were 19 or 20 again. Of course, there will come a time when I can't make a break or a tackle and I'm no use to anyone, but I hope I'll have the sense to stop before that happens."

If Guscott's recent form is a reliable guide, he will not render himself useless for some time yet. Indeed, if the Lions selectors were to convene tomorrow to choose a XV capable of giving the Wallabies or the All Blacks a hurry-up, his would be among the first names on the team list, probably stationed alongside Scott Gibbs, who partnered him in '93 and '97, or John Leslie, the Scottish New Zealander from Otago whose gifts were very much in evidence in Saturday's Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham.

There is still some doubt over the Lions' precise destination in the summer of 2001; while the Wallaby hierarchy believe there will be a three- Test series in Australia, their nearest and dearest enemies from across the Tasman Sea beg to differ.

Whatever the outcome, only Guscott has a chance of writing himself into the record books by completing the hat-trick to end them all. A tiny handful of colleagues from the 1989 victory in Australia are still playing Test rugby - Gary Armstrong and Craig Chalmers with Scotland, David Young with Wales - but neither of the two Scots toured South Africa in 1997 and, while Young was selected for that trip, he failed to make the Test line- up.

Meanwhile one of the South Africans who faced Guscott in the '97 series, Jannie de Beer, yesterday confirmed his intention to play for Bristol if the second division club complete their much-debated takeover of the financially challenged exiles of London Scottish. Not that the former Springbok from the Free State, one of the experienced imports behind a startling recent revival by the Richmond-based club, was remotely overjoyed at the prospect.

"I don't want to see the club bought out," he said. "All the guys who play here have worked so hard for each other and we should be allowed to go on and see just how far we can take it."

Bristol's downturn in fortunes, exacerbated by Sunday's narrow defeat at Coventry, only increases the likelihood of their pressing ahead with a deal that has outraged many rank and file rugby followers.

No longer the promotion certainties they once appeared to be - Worcester and Rotherham are now the form horses in Allied Dunbar Premiership Two - the West Countrymen may feel more inclined to buy a place in the top flight rather than earn one.

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