Rugby Union: Ubogu recalled from wilderness

Versatile prop returns a week after being released from England's Rugby World Cup squad.
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DO NOT be fooled by the sharp suits, the yellow Lotus, the successful sports bar in Chelsea: Victor Ubogu is not, repeat not, a millionaire. This startling nugget of information was extracted from the horse's very own mouth during England's World Cup get-together in Devon yesterday. But as Bath's folk-hero prop forward would have been thoroughly justified in pointing out during cross-examination over his financial status, who needs a seven-figure current account when you have just earned something mere money could never buy?

Clive Woodward's sudden volte-face over the Ubogu issue - Big Vic was history this time last week, only to become extremely contemporary seven days later - ensures that England will stride boldly into next month's tournament armed with their very heaviest artillery. "I have to say I'm pretty shocked; in fact, I'm still recovering from the shock of being left out, so the shock of being called in again has yet to hit me," said the Nigerian-born Oxford Blue, who will turn 35 in exactly a week's time. "But I'm happy, oh yes. This is my last season in professional rugby and the only reason I'm here at all is the World Cup. Being a part of it was my only real objective in staying this long."

Like most aspects of Ubogu's off-beat, left-field career, the story of his selection in Woodward's golden 30 is unusual, to say the least. On Monday of last week, the coach appeared to bid farewell to a number of squad members, thanking them profusely for their services and informing them they would be considered as World Cup stand-bys. Ubogu learned by e-mail, the ultra-trendy Woodward's favourite means of communication, that he was among them. He considered the message to be entirely valedictory in nature and, flabbergasted as well as bitterly disappointed, he dropped out of circulation for a few days to lick his wounds.

"I knew the final cut had not been made, but I thought the implications of being left out last week spoke for themselves," he admitted. "I was totally deflated to be honest with you and I was still deflated over the weekend. I had no indication of any change of mind - I did not get in touch with Clive because I couldn't think of anything he might say that would make me feel any better - and when I checked the squad on my e-mail on Monday night, it was only out of interest. When I saw my name... well, you can imagine."

Ubogu is one of 10 survivors from England's last foray into World Cup hostilities in 1995, a tournament that signalled a precipitous decline in sporting fortune for perhaps the most dynamic English prop of the post- war era. "When I think of where I was three years ago, making this squad is something special for me," he said. And where were you three years ago, Vic? "You could say I was at Shoeless Joe's," he admitted, referring to the bar he opened in west London just as the game was turning professional. "I had no time for rugby: I was finding it difficult to juggle my business and sporting interests, I was struggling with injury and I'd been transfer- listed by Bath because of my own lack of interest. Basically, I was in a `sod it' frame of mind.

"But slowly, I realised I could organise my life a whole lot better and, by doing so, get a lot more out of my rugby. It was a two-year plan, in effect: the first year was devoted to convincing both Bath and England that I was serious about playing at the top level and could still offer something on the field, the second was all about consistency, about producing the goods every single weekend. I'm not getting any younger, it's true, but then, there is no comparison between my physical condition at the end of '96 and my condition now."

Certainly, he is in the mood to take on all comers. "I may not be a first choice front-rower at the moment, but I won't be content with bench duty," he insisted.

"Watching England play from a seat in the stand is not my idea of competing in a World Cup and, believe me, I'm here to compete. I'll challenge at loose head and I'll challenge at tight head. I won't see another World Cup, so it's a case of making the most of this one."