Rugby Union: Out of the Guscott shadow

European Cup: Bath's new hope is also England's as the heir to a legend prepares to take on the best; Alex Hayes says Mike Tindall is ready to follow famous footsteps

MONDAY 18 October 1999 will live long in Mike Tindall's memory. The Bath centre was driving to his golf club when his mobile phone rang. The call was from one Clive Woodward and the news was bittersweet. Having just been informed that Jeremy Guscott was sadly bringing down the curtain on his illustrious international career, the England coach picked Tindall, Guscott's club understudy, to join the World Cup squad as his replacement. That Monday coincided with Tindall's 21st birthday, and that invitation was some present.

"Yeah, not bad," said Tindall at Bath's Recreation Ground as the team prepared for a week in which the club's season became suddenly serious. First there was yesterday's televised league game against Newcastle (the first to count for the full three points after the return of the World Cup players), and then this Saturday's glittering European Cup opener against Toulouse. "I didn't play very good golf that day but I wasn't really bothered." No doubt the 19th was a more fulfilling hole? "Let's just say it was an interesting night. I couldn't go out on a massive one because I was about to join the England squad, but it was a nice occasion," he said with just a hint of mischief.

Tindall's World Cup experience turned out to be short and bitter. Called up just days before the quarter-final against South Africa, he sat, helpless, in the stands of the Stade de France as Jannie De Beer's diamond right boot dropped England out of the tournament. "You simply can't defend against five drop goals," he said. "It was a real anti-climax for the boys. They didn't deserve to go out like that. If it had been a try-fest, they wouldn't have minded, but that was a sour way to exit."

At least Tindall witnessed, at first hand, the demands of a World Cup. "Sure," he continued. "It was great to be involved and see how things went on. I learned the training methods and what Clive wants. Unfortunately, I was only there for four days and never got to play."

Tindall is proud to have had some involvement in the last great sporting event of the Millennium, although he shares in the view that the tournament was not the best. "It never really captured the imagination," he said. "I think it's because the whole thing was too disjointed. The scheduling didn't allow people to get into the spirit of things. The average attendance was something like 32,000, so it's not the fans who weren't there, it's the organisation."

The fact that Tindall replaced Guscott in the squad was both ironic and poignant. Not only are they team-mates at Bath, but young Mike is King Jerry's protege. Indeed, it is a policy of Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, that every senior player should be assigned to a new recruit to help them adapt to the demands of professional rugby. Tindall clearly drew the long straw and the on-going relationship has been an eye-opener for the Wakefield-born centre, both on and off the field. "When I joined the club in the summer of 1997, I asked Jerry if he'd be my mentor. He accepted and I can honestly say I've learned loads. He's pretty frank you know, and he'll always tell you if you're not doing something right. But he's also supportive, and always available to talk about anything."

Master it is who has helped pupil channel his energy more efficiently. At 6ft 2in and nearing 15st, Tindall is not what you might call a subtle player, but Guscott has taught him to combine his substantial strength with more creative running. "I used to love the physical contact," he said, "and still do to a certain extent. But I have developed my game since joining Bath; I look for the gaps more."

According to Geoff Wappett, his coach at England Under-18 level, Tindall has always had the makings of the perfect all-round centre. "Both he and Jonny Wilkinson were outstanding during our tour of Australia in 1997. He's continued that form and I'm not at all surprised by what he's achieved. If he gets the right coaching, he'll become the perfect mix of a 12 and 13."

With the World Cup experience behind him, and following an impressive start to the domestic season, Tindall and his Bath colleagues will now turn their attentions to the European Cup. Too disjointed, too spread out and not properly advertised, the competition has had its fair share of criticism. Perhaps the most significant grievance to be expressed is that the event has not been challenging enough; that rather than provide northern hemisphere players with a version of the Super 12, the European Cup has given them easy shopping opportunities.

The hope is that this season's newly revamped cup will provide an appropriate stepping stone from club to international rugby. "There's no doubt that when you get to the European Cup stage, you're getting better games. Whereas in the league you can sometimes get relatively easy matches, there are no easy ones in Europe."

So will this European Cup finally provide northern hemisphere rugby with the intense competition it needs? "I think this is going to be another step up in level. Players are going to be more focused and better prepared for these games because the rewards are so much greater." Which means European rugby can no longer be called an irrelevance. "No, not at all," Tindall continued. "The guys are really excited about playing in Europe. Going to France or Italy is what you want to be doing. Playing rugby matches against European opposition is what it's all about. We all want to play in the games and everyone here is looking forward to the cup."

Bath's opponents on Saturday, in the first round of the pool stages, are the inaugural European champions, Toulouse. Tindall says he knows little about the history of Bath's Gallic challengers, although he vaguely remembers Rob Andrew once plying his trade there. "They've plenty of experience at this level and usually do quite well in the competition, so we'll have to be at our best to beat them. But we're confident we can do that, especially on our own patch."

The Rec has been a veritable fortress all season, and Bath have lost only one match while their senior players were in the World Cup. It says much about the quality of the youngsters at the club and if Robinson can blend the two generations, you would not bet against them reliving their former glories.

"We don't underestimate anyone," Tindall said. "Like any French side, Toulouse have absolute nutters in the pack and incredible runners in the backs. They all have so much flair that you never know what they're going to do next." Don't worry Mike, neither do they.

HOW IT WORKS

There are 24 clubs in the Cup: six French, six English, five Welsh, three Irish, two Scottish and two Italian, who qualified in last season's domestic programmes. They are divided into six pools.

Pool A: Stade Francais, Glasgow, Leinster, Leicester.

Pool B: Bath, Toulouse, Swansea, Padova.

Pool C: Bourgoin, Ulster, Wasps, Llanelli.

Pool D: Colomiers, Saracens, Munster, Pontypridd.

Pool E: Cardiff, Harlequins, Benetton Treviso, Montferrand.

Pool F: Northampton, Neath, Edinburgh Reivers, Grenoble.

Pool stage: Two points for win, one for draw. Six pool winners and two best runners-up qualify for quarter-finals. Pool winners ranked one to six, runners-up, seven and eight. If equal on points and in same pool, ranking based on pool matches between them. If not in same pool, ranking on tries scored in pool matches, then match points, then sendings off.

Quarter-final draw: Team one v eight, two v seven, three v six, four v five. Teams one to four have home advantage.

Pool matches: Nov-Jan.

Quarter-finals: w/e 15 April.

Semi-finals: w/e 6 May.

Final: w/e 27 May.

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