Rugby Union: Yates faces an unenviable test of character

Eight months after shocking the world of rugby union by biting an opponent's ear, the Bath prop is back.
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ENGLAND'S FRONT row future emerged blinking into the sunlight in Bath yesterday, only to discover the demons of his recent past running riot across the lush green carpet of the Recreation Ground. Kevin Yates may be a World Cup cornerstone in the making and he may be in the best physical shape of his life, but it still takes only a single flicker of a camera shutter to remind him of the psychological burden of sporting notoriety.

The television crews almost fell over themselves in the rush to pin their man against the nearest Georgian backdrop and ask him the big question: "Okay Kev, we're six months down the road. Did you bite him or didn't you?"

Yates, making his first public Bath appearance since the dark days of last February, was having none of it and, with a mumbled, monosyllabic apology, he departed briskly for his car. The only response came from his fellow prop, Victor Ubogu, who bellowed: "Leave him alone, can't you? The guy's off limits."

He will find it difficult to stay off limits indefinitely as the 25-year- old loose-head has elected to rebuild a high profile career at the scene of the crime, as it were.

Sporting crowds rarely forget a scandal and to the terrace comedians Yates will forever be remembered as the man who, during a cup match just after Christmas, helped himself to a piece of ear belonging to Simon Fenn, the London Scottish flanker. It will not matter a jot that he protested, and continues to protest, his innocence. He is fair game.

According to his colleagues, however, Yates' obvious discomfort at yesterday's official squad announcement and photo-call is not reflected in the more private surroundings of the dressing room. "I think he's adapted incredibly well," said John Mallett, a close friend and fellow front-rower whose unstinting moral support helped Yates survive the most traumatic disciplinary saga in the history of the English game.

"As far as Kevin is concerned, it's over. Finished. There will be no hard feelings about the way he was treated, no recriminations. He has a tremendous amount to look forward to. There aren't many props in this country who can touch him and I think he'll be back in the England squad very quickly."

Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, takes the intriguing view that Yates will reap long-term benefits from his enforced absence from the game. "Look at Neil Back's career path," said the former England flanker. "He received a similar suspension for shoving the referee after the cup final against us in 1996 and used the time to put his body back together with a proper training regime.

"He re-emerged twice the player and there's been no stopping him since. Kevin will be the same, I'm sure. He's a big talent who now has a big fitness base from which to operate. He won't have enjoyed the last six months but there are positives he can take from the experience."

The Yates affair split the Bath dressing room in two - some players applauded the management's decision to suspend Yates pending a variety of disciplinary investigations, others were infuriated by what they saw as rank disloyalty to one of their own - but Robinson is confident that the old fraternal spirit has been pieced back together. His appointment as captain of Richard Webster, the former Wales and Lions loose-forward, is seen as a major step towards re-cementing the bonds.

"Richard is club captain rather than first team captain," explained the coach. "He's not guaranteed a place in the starting line-up but we consider him a person who personifies this club and embodies the criteria we lay down for anyone wishing to call himself a Bath player.

"He leads on and off the field in a way that pulls in all the different strands and creates a sense of common purpose."

Webster nodded sagely before adding: "I know a bit about leadership. I'm definitely in charge in my house."

Robinson is now seeking to finalise two international signings to supplement the arrivals of Ben Sturnham from Saracens, Jim Fallon from Richmond and the brilliant 19-year-old scrum-half prospect from Wales, Gareth Cooper. Jon Preston, the versatile All Black half-back, is 99 per cent certain to switch hemispheres - "apart from anything else, he kicks goals," enthused Robinson - and there is also a move to recruit Kevin Maggs, the Irish centre who is now a free agent as a result of Bristol's descent into receivership.

"It's been a funny old summer," said Tony Swift, the Bath chief executive. "We seem to have been linked with every player in every transfer market in world rugby and we've been portrayed as some sort of predatory monster, homing in on everyone's best talent with a chequebook between our teeth.

"It's not the case, of course. We've gone after specific players and yes, we've said we're prepared to pay realistic transfer fees. Some have come our way and some, like David Rees at Sale or Malcolm O'Kelly at London Irish, have stayed put. Why do we get all the crap in the papers? We've played it straight down the line."

Swift is steering well clear of the grandiose predictions made by some of his colleagues in the none to distant past. "I think it was two years ago that we sat here and boldly said we were going to win all four major tournaments available to us," he recalled with embarrassment. "Given that we didn't win a thing that season, I won't go any further than to say that our sole objective is to challenge for major honours."

For Kevin Yates, the challenge is far more personal and immeasurably more difficult. The strength of his scrummaging has never been questioned. We are now about to learn something of his strength of character.