Bracken is calling shots as Saracens start to fire

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England rugby union scrum-half is now a contender for Lions captaincy a year after facing retirement.

England rugby union scrum-half is now a contender for Lions captaincy a year after facing retirement.

There was a supremely comical, custard-pie moment during last weekend's match between Bath and Saracens at the Recreation Ground, a moment that came as a blessedrelief to a melancholy set of home supporters who were finding little mirth in their side's performance. Thomas Castaignÿde, the miniature musketeer from France, and Tony Diprose, a former captain of England, made such a monumental pig's ear of a simple blind-side move shortly before the interval that Ed Morrison, the referee, blew instantly for half-time to save them further embarrassment.

The West Country crowd laughed loud and long, especially when Castaignÿde threw one of his Gallic wobblies - a shake of the head, a wave of the arms and a torrent of sacre bleus - and Diprose unwittingly made the situation worse by attempting to soothe the full-back's mood with a brotherly bear hug. One onlooker was not laughing, however. Kyran Bracken, a most amiable sort in the general run of things, fixed his errant club-mates with a stare that would have frightened the Medusa herself. He then put Castaignÿde straight on one or two matters before stomping off to the dressing-room in an almighty strop. It was almost as if he had cocked the whole thing up himself.

"Yes, I remember it," grimaced the England scrum-half and Saracens captain this week. "Thomas was meant to go blind off Tony from the base of the scrum: schoolboy stuff, really. Strangely enough, he did go blind, but then changed his mind and hared off back to the open side. Tony passed to where Thomas had been originally, as opposed to where he ended up, and the ball sat there in the middle of nowhere with everyone looking at it. The point is, it's my role as captain to make sure these mistakes don't happen. It may not have been my error as such, but it's the sort of thing I take personally."

According to Francois Pienaar, who knows pretty much all there is to know about the art of rugby leadership and then some, Bracken's willingness to take responsibility for everything that Saracens do on the pitch, good and bad, makes him a captain in a thousand. "Kyran is perfect captaincy material," said the World Cup-winning Springbok, who appointed Bracken head boy during the off-season despite the fact that he had just missed virtually an entire Premiership campaign. "The quality of his shot-calling speaks for itself - most world-class No 9s are good in the decision-making department - but his maturity as a player and his commitment to the team ethic mark him out as something special. The spirit in this club is quite phenomenal at the moment, and that is down to him."

All of which makes Bracken an intriguing dark horse for the Lions captaincy in Australia next summer. The talk is of Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio fighting it out between them, with Ireland's Keith Wood flitting in and out of the discussions. But if Saracens generate a head of steam in coming months - and the quality of their game at Bath indicated that they will be this season's Northampton, chasing major trophies on three fronts - the 28-year-old law graduate will loom ever larger in the minds of Donald Lenihan and Graham Henry, the men who matter. Certainly, his display under Heineken Cup fire in Toulouse this afternoon will be heavily scrutinised.

Bracken's talents in this regard were recognised years ago by his philosopher guide, the Bristol University coach and Rugby Football Union committee man, Bob Reeves, who confidently expected his brightest student to captain England before the mid-point of the last decade. What Reeves did not know as he made his prediction was that Bracken would be half crippled by a bulging disc in his back, a degenerative condition that would hamper his efforts in the 1995 World Cup and prevent him participating at all in the 1999 tournament. Over six bitterly frustrating years, the most complete scrum-half in Europe missed more rugby than he played, and would have missed a whole lot more had he accepted a particularly pessimistic piece of medical advice he received a year or so ago.

"I knew there was something seriously wrong with my back," he recalled, "but never for a moment had the thought crossed my mind that my career might be over. Then I went to see a specialist in town, a consultant who happened to be Saracens' insurance surgeon, and he said: 'I'm sorry Kyran, but you'll have to resume the day job. It's over.' I was so completely shattered by it all that I boarded a Tube train going in the opposite direction to where I wanted to go. For a while, I just didn't know where I was.

"From that low point, I decided to seek a second opinion - and a third one, and a fourth, however many I needed to give myself some hope. One specialist wanted to treat my condition orthopaedically by fusing my back with bone taken from my hip. I didn't fancy that, to be honest with you. But I also saw a microsurgeon who offered a less invasive solution. The operation took 45 minutes and it did the trick. Had I followed the more conventional route, I'd have been in theatre for God knows how many hours with no guarantee of success."

So it was that he returned to fitness and form just as his great rival for the England position, Matt Dawson, was coming apart at the seam - or, rather, the shoulder. Back at the heels of the red rose pack for the two summer Tests in South Africa, Bracken produced a couple of absolute blinders; indeed, the cognoscenti agree that his performance in Bloemfontein, when England finally beat a top southern hemisphere nation on their own mudheap after umpteen years of failure, rivalled that of his ailing partner, Jonny Wilkinson, in both courage and influence. Suddenly, it is Dawson who is learning the hardest lesson of all: that life can be a bitch, as well as a bowl of cherries.

"That summer tour was such a huge boost for me; I was on a total high," said Bracken. "I couldn't believe I was fit again, I couldn't believe I was back in the England shake-up and I couldn't believe I was part of a side that had beaten the Boks in Bloem. But when I arrived back in England and started thinking things over, I was disappointed that we hadn't won the Pretoria Test as well. We did enough to take the series 2-0. I suppose that's what being an international sportsman is all about: you're never satisfied with what you have, you always set your sights that little bit higher.

"Certainly, I feel that way with Saracens. I don't want to start shouting about the things we can achieve this season, but it's obvious what we want from the campaign. We want the things that Northampton had last season: the pressure and the challenge of being involved in everything, right to the bitter end. Yes, I know they were on their knees and playing injured - I have first-hand experience of all that - but in the end, they came away with the Heineken Cup while we came away with zip.

"Being captain increases the desire because you identify yourself so completely with your team. In the past, I might have said to myself: 'We may have lost, but at least I had a good one.' I don't think like that now. I may have an stormer of a game, but it will be of consolation to me if we've lost the match. I don't judge myself on my own performance, but on the performance of the side. That's the burden you take on when you accept the honour of the captaincy."