Rugby Union: Preston thrives in pressure zone

Bath's new All Black could enter Premiership fray at Welford Road today in any one of three positions
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The Independent Online
JUST WHAT do professional rugby people talk about all week, now that they have no proper jobs to fret over? They talk about pressure, a purely abstract concept that nevertheless covers the modern game like a shroud. There are pressure tackles, pressure scrums, pressure line-outs, pressure kicks. Coaches are under pressure to get results, marketing gurus to put bums on seats and chief executives to balance the books, usually because the bank accounts are - yes, you guessed it - under pressure.

Discuss the subject of pressure with Jon Preston, however, and you wonder what all the fuss is about. Preston feels so at home with pressure that if it really existed, he would probably bathe in the stuff. No one who has survived a decade of top-class rugby in New Zealand, come off the All Black bench to secure a famous Test series victory in South Africa and then played fast and loose with the wrath of a nation by absconding to England, is easily fazed.

Not even by the common assumption that he will single-handedly win this season's Premiership for Bath, his new club as of last Monday. Confronted by a mountain range of expectation the size of the southern Alps - he was born, 30 years ago, almost within kicking distance of those very peaks - Preston appears to solve so many hitherto insoluble problems for the spluttering European champions that the West Country faithful have already dismissed last Saturday's embarrassing defeat at London Scottish as the folly of a previous age.

You can see their point. As a scrum-half, outside-half, marksman and decision-maker of indisputable Test quality, Preston is a walking panacea; a rich concoction of the best of Richard Hill, Stuart Barnes and Jon Callard and spiced with that extra, indefinable ingredient known throughout the rugby world as All Blackishness. If he plays at No 9 he will relieve the mercurial Mike Catt of the shot-calling duties he finds so trying. If he plays at 10, Catt will finally be at liberty to reinvent himself as the attacking centre England know they need. What is more, Bath will be able to field their most gifted back division without losing sleep over the frailty of their goal-kicking.

Andy Robinson, that ultimate team man who now coaches Bath, is hardly the sort to go over the top on behalf of any one player, but judging by his smile as he unveiled Preston at the Recreation Ground this week, he knows he has completed the signing of the season. "Permutations? I've suddenly got hundreds of them, haven't I?" he beamed. "I can tweak things here and twist things there, safe in the knowledge that Jon's organisational skills will pull it all together. It's a new ball game now."

Preston decided some eight months ago that he was not long for the All Black world. "I was halfway through the last New Zealand season when the thought came to me that I should get out of there and try something new," he explained. "I'd been playing rugby in my home environment from the age of five, almost without a break, and while I'd had some of the greatest experiences and played for some of the greatest teams, I felt that I should take the opportunity to broaden out a little. In many ways, this has been a life decision as much as a rugby one.

"Had I been a number one Test choice for the All Blacks, I'm sure I would have found that decision a whole lot harder to make. As it was, I just took the plunge. It was only after I'd made my plans known to my province, Wellington, and the All Black hierarchy that the seriousness of it all hit me a wee bit. But here we are, my wife Lisa and I, in a lovely city, in a beautiful part of England. I'm genuinely excited about the whole venture, especially as the Bath name carries so much weight, even back home in New Zealand."

While Preston's age leaves him on the "other side of the ledger", as he delicately puts it, his trans-hemisphere move remains a sickening body blow to New Zealand's unusually frayed rugby fabric. Frank Bunce, Zinzan Brooke and Lee Stensness have all taken the European shilling over the last nine months or so and the exodus is certain to gather pace. "The trickle will probably become a flood, especially when we get to watershed time at the end of next's year's World Cup," predicted the latest arrival. "Perhaps I subconsciously realised that I had to get out before the deluge.

"Back home, the only professional players are the 150 or so guys with Super 12 contracts. A lot of good players find themselves locked out and they then look to France or England and see not only the strength and popularity, but the cosmopolitanism of the domestic championships there. I've always been one of the lucky ones; I had a good run with the Hurricanes in last season's Super 12. But I'm not getting any younger and I can see some pretty awesome young athletes coming through the ranks. Once upon a time, you would get one really special physical specimen in every hundred. Nowadays, it's 30 or 40 in every hundred."

Not that Preston's own curriculm vitae contains even the merest hint of physical inferiority; the veteran of 171 first-class games in New Zealand, split almost equally between Canterbury and Wellington, his most recent "bleep test" results marked him out as the fittest All Black of the lot. He was also one of the most resilient. His most serious injury, a dislocated shoulder suffered during a tour game in Western Australia six years ago, inconvenienced him so profoundly that he missed a whole four matches.

There is more to any outstanding sportsman than an iron physique, however. Preston's most vital statistics are those that refer to the stillness of mind, the acuity of perception, he brings to the most pressurised of rugby moments. How else to explain his 1,279 points in top New Zealand competition, the record 44 points he rattled off in a single game for Canterbury and, above all, those two almost holy penalties he banged over at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria on 24 August 1996 to give his country their first series victory on Springbok soil.

"When I'm old and decrepit, I guess that game will be in the centre of my mind's eye. I'd been on the field about a minute when the first chance arose; it was only 30-odd metres out but the angle wasn't the easiest and I was pretty relieved when it went over. The second? It was much further out, somewhere near halfway, but those kicks never seem quite so agonising, mainly because no one really expects you to goal them. It took us to the brink of safety, though, so it was a big moment."

Listening to those reminiscences, Robinson nodded sagely. The coach had already decided to include Preston in his squad for today's almighty rumble at Leicester, where victory would go a long way towards establishing Bath as title favourites, and those tales of the high veldt were hugely reassuring. "That's why we've brought Jon here," he said. "When you talk about that game at Loftus, you're talking real pressure. The sort of pressure we, in our own small way, face this afternoon at Welford Road, where we haven't won in four years. It's all about coping and Jon has been doing that for years."