Rugby Union: Maggs still knocking them over in midfield

Ireland's one-man demolition act will provide a stern test for England in Dublin. Chris Hewett reports
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The Independent Online
WHEN JEREMY GUSCOTT describes Kevin Maggs as the "silent assassin", he does so in the profoundly disconcerting knowledge that his blood brother from Bath is planning to liven up tomorrow afternoon's Ireland-England proceedings in Dublin with a touch of fratricide. If Guscott is the high-born Prince of Centres, his direct opponent at Lansdowne Road is the usurper from the wrong side of the West Country tracks; a ruthless bit of rough who has glimpsed the good things in life and decided they are his for the taking.

Maggs spent so much of his early career looking up at Guscott - or, rather, trying to locate him with a pair of binoculars as he glided off with the ball under one arm - that nothing would amuse him more than to give his club colleague a taste of the good mud of Leinster this weekend. Certainly, he is both physically and mentally equipped to do so; the 24-year-old Bristolian has an unusual take on the "no pain, no gain" philosophy of rugby achievement, in so far as he believes the "pain" element to be the exclusive preserve of his opponents.

Which is precisely why he was able to perform the apparently unperformable at Wembley 13 days ago by running straight through the brick wall known as Scott Gibbs and reducing Swansea's pride and joy to a small pile of rubble that sat forlornly on the Welsh 22-metre line like some hastily constructed mountainside memorial. Maggs also helped himself to a first- half try during that victory, which came as a blessed relief after five straight Five Nations' Championship defeats, and was so tickled by the experience that he caught the first Sunday morning train out of Paddington, rushed across Bristol to his parents' home and relived the moment on video.

The Irish have been the talk of the Five Nations town over the last five weeks or so and while their pack of reinforced concrete has deservedly taken the lion's share of the public praise, Maggs' name is among those most frequently discussed among the players and coaches. Guscott considers him to be one of the hardest tacklers in the business - Gibbs would surely concur - and if the former Bristol kerb-layer cannot thread a pass like a Codornieu or sear the turf like a Gerber, his destructive abilities make him very nearly as valuable. After all, the physical havoc wrought by a Free Stater by the name of Joggie Jansen once decided a Springbok- All Black series. He, too, was a centre.

Perversely, Maggs might not be enjoying the high life now were it not for the men who managed his home town club into financial oblivion. "I signed a two-year deal with Bristol at the end of last season, which in retrospect wasn't the brightest of moves," he recalled this week. "We were down in the Second Division having lost the play-off against London Scottish and the way we lost had upset and angered me because I felt we hadn't prepared well enough and weren't as hungry as the opposition, which was unforgiveable. But Bristol was my club and had been since I first picked up a ball. It was a loyalty thing, I suppose.

"I talked things through with John Hiles, who was on the management board, and he persuaded me that the club was going places, so I agreed the new contract and went off to South Africa with Ireland for the summer tour.

"Almost as soon as I arrived, my mum phoned me to say John had resigned. I was very, very worried, I can tell you. It was while I was on holiday a few weeks later that the club went into receivership and the players were informed that their existing contracts would not, could not, be honoured. I decided then to move on. Richmond had been interested and within a few days, both Bath and Gloucester got in touch. One meeting with Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, was enough. I knew straight away that the Recreation Ground was right for me.

"It was a bit uncomfortable, all the same. Bath represented everything I'd ever stood and fought against as a Bristol player; they were the enemy, simple as that, and like all the other Bristol blokes, I'd suffered a hell of a lot because of them. But I also knew that the coaching, the attitudes, the culture of success would be good for me. So it has proved. It hasn't been a good season by Bath standards and I'm not exactly proud of the fact that I've now been involved in both Bristol's and Bath's heaviest league defeats, but I've won in places where I'd only ever been hammered previously. I've got another two seasons after this and I'm looking forward to every minute of it."

Maggs was hardly an obvious target for Bath; his unflamboyant, muscular, route one style did not sit easily in the grand tradition of Beese, Palmer, Halliday and De Glanville, let alone Guscott. But Robinson pitched for him on the strength of a majestic performance in adversity against the Springboks in Bloemfontein last June and has had no reason to regret it.

"He's been a big plus," the coach agreed recently. "He's a heart and soul type and when things aren't going too well, you need that sort of honesty."

According to Maggs, whose maternal grandmother hailed from Limerick, the seminal experience of his career to date did not occur on the high veld of the Free State, but on the killing fields of rural New Zealand a year previously. Freshly selected by an Irish management previously unaware of his eligibility, he was packed off on a development tour of All Black country under Brian Ashton, the newly appointed national coach. It was there that he learned his great lesson: that if you show the slightest sign of weakness, good southern hemisphere opposition will bury you alive.

"That was such a desperately hard tour; I've never trained so much in my life and never played rugby in such difficult circumstances. The tour organisers set us into the heartlands, the real one-horse towns where the game is a way of life, and there was no mercy from the New Zealanders. It was a fight for survival, really, and we lost some of our games very heavily. A few of my colleagues on that trip have not featured in the Ireland set-up since.

"But you grow together as a team when you experience something like that and I think this current Irish side has gone up several levels over the last few matches. We're fit, our defence is getting stronger all the time and we have some world-class players in important positions. We're pretty relaxed about this game, actually, and that comes from confidence in each other. We'll discover a lot about ourselves this weekend."

Just as Guscott and Matt Perry, the other Bath regular in the England line-up, expect to discover one or two things about their club-mate. "It's nice to see Matt in the side at full-back," smiled Maggs, the old Bristol spirit coursing through his veins once again. "I've already had a word in his ear and he knows that when the first high ball goes up, I'll be under it like a shot. Well, it would be rude to back off, wouldn't it?"