Bracken's life in exile is stressful enough, thank you

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The Independent Online

Kyran Bracken is bullish about England's options at scrum-half, a position he coveted for a decade, and indeed filled with distinction more than 50 times when Matt Dawson or Andy Gomarsall were out of the way, but it is no longer his problem. Having retired from international rugby, Bracken is giving his full attention to his club, Saracens - and therein lie problems enough for any man.

After a morale-crushing 20-5 loss at London Irish last Sunday, Saracens find themselves in familiar territory, down among the Premiership's bottom-feeders. The trophy cabinet has remained locked since the Tetley's Bitter Cup win of 1998, and a host of star players and coaches have come and gone without relief. Week after week, hope spills a scoring pass; despair kicks the winning drop goal for the opposition. The knee-ligament injury which looks to have ended Richard Hill's season is just the latest setback.

"You can only judge from the last game," said Bracken as he contemplated the chances of ending a run of three defeats at home to Northampton this afternoon, "and to judge from London Irish we are a long way off. Everything was wrong - the line-outs weren't good, the kick-offs and kicking were awful, the go-forward wasn't there. We let the Irish come to us, and it was plain to see we weren't playing the way we wanted to."

The response of the Saracens coaches, Steve Diamond and Rod Kafer, was to cancel Wednesday's day off, force the squad to watch four or five replays of the Irish match and, according to Bracken, "name and shame" the guilty individuals. "We've had our rollicking from the coaches. We were made to realise by them that it wasn't good enough. We played well to beat Wasps on the first weekend, but have gradually got worse and worse. If I knew exactly what was missing, I'd spread the good word."

Bracken could be forgiven for going quietly in this, his last season. He has a variety of events to tie in with his testimonial, and an autobiography on the way. Saracens have two more Test scrum-halves on the books in Morgan Williams of Canada and Fiji's Moses Rauluni. But the club's longest-serving player after Hill is still "desperate" to play every week.

"I'm not a believer that it takes time to settle a team," said Bracken. "We signed some good forwards in the summer [Matt Cairns, Iain Fullarton, Alex Sanderson, Kevin Yates, Hugh Vyvyan], we've got a good coaching structure, and good young English players coming through. We have the ability to do better."

Bracken's league debut after moving from Bristol in 1996 was the kind of famous win - a 25-23 defeat of Leicester in front of 6,200 fans - which convinced many that Saracens were going places. But the venue, Enfield Football Club, has since disappeared, and so too has the gain in support witnessed at Watford - rising to attendances of 20,000 on occasions - to the extent that similar figures to that of eight years ago have been the norm at Vicarage Road of late.

The truth is that Saracens and the other clubs who do not own their own ground or training facilities are fighting the likes of Leicester and Northampton with one hand tied behind their backs. The uncom-fortable video analysis took place in the converted clubhouse Sarries occupy at their old first-team pitch in north London. A couple of players whirl away on exercise bikes placed haphazardly in the canteen. To buy a brownfield site for a new facility, Nigel Wray and his fellow directors would have to pay London prices and outbid a Tesco or a Sainsbury's.

Bracken was the toast of the country when, despite an injured back, he played in pain and in a corset to help England secure the crucial World Cup pool win over South Africa in Perth last year. His reward was watch the final as an unused bench replacement. And on his 32nd birthday, to boot. "You see England on TV and think, 'Wouldn't it be great to be involved'," he said. "But not being with them means I don't have to do all the weights, which keeps my back as fresh as possible."

One of Bracken's forthcoming social engagements will reunite Jonny Wilkinson and Martin Johnson among others for a dinner on the anniversary of the World Cup final. In his book he is believed to detail his "difficulties" with Andy Robinson, but he insists England's acting head coach is spoilt for choice at No 9. "I think Matt [Dawson] will still be around," said Bracken, "and with Harry Ellis and Andy Gomarsall you've got good scrum-halves competing." What about Worcester's Clive Stuart-Smith? "From what I've seen, Ellis is ahead of him. Miles ahead." If only the same could be said for Saracens, Bracken could hang up his boots next May a happier man.