Gomarsall wising up to challenges ahead

Gloucester's spirited scrum-half plans to return from injury in the best physical shape of his rugby union career as he attempts to climb the England pecking order
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It has been a steep, even precipitous, learning curve at times for Andy Gomarsall. And when Wasps dispensed with his services just last year it crowned an unhappy period in his life when he had lost form and confidence after a major back operation. In short, it looked like the end of his rugby union career.

It has been a steep, even precipitous, learning curve at times for Andy Gomarsall. And when Wasps dispensed with his services just last year it crowned an unhappy period in his life when he had lost form and confidence after a major back operation. In short, it looked like the end of his rugby union career.

He could have thrown in the towel, hoisted the white flag and called the whole thing off. But for Gomarsall that would have been out of character. Whatever else he is, the sometime England scrum-half is no quitter. He is the embodiment of a battler, imbued with fighting spirit.

What he did next was the unexpected, at least for a lot of people. He turned up at struggling Bedford, the town where he went to school. Furthermore he was announced as captain of the Blues - rather appropriate under the circumstances. Goldington Road was not shipshape - indeed it was listing badly, holed below its financial waterline, but studded with staff on and off the field who wanted the once proud club to succeed.

Gomarsall came of age at last, probably as a person, but definitely as a player. As the season unfolded so did his range of skills as a scrum-half unfold. Gone was the one dimensional, predictable youth, trying to prove something every second of every game.

"When I look back at the player I used to be I am horrified," he said. "There had been some criticism of my play and I always try to listen because I want to become a better player. And sure, I probably did try to tap and go at quick penalties too often, becoming predictable and getting nowhere in the process. I was not strong enough either, not physical enough, to get through then.

"At Wasps I got caught up in the ethos of running rugby. It was a big stage there and, as a youngster, when they wanted to run everything I took them literally. I was tactically naïve."

However willing he was to learn, the realisation came too late to save his career with the North London club.

"When Wasps released me it was the lowest point of my career," he said. "That sort of thing saps all your confidence, and I am a confidence player. You start to wonder if you are good enough. Everyone needs a good kick up the backside from time to time. This was mine. Bedford came along and gave me a new lease of life. At the time I needed Bedford as much as they needed me. They kept me in the Premiership, which was vital. And the captaincy gave me a sense of responsibility as well."

From that platform he also managed to find his way back into the England squad, some three years after winning his sixth and last cap, when he came on as a replacement in the second Test against Argentina.

His seventh came in Rome last year. Again it was as a replacement, but it indicated that all was not lost. He was obviously doing well enough to attract England attention.

"Even though at Bedford we were losing regularly I never felt outplayed," he insists. "Playing week-in, week-out with indifferent ball helped my game. And in the end I think I found the right balance. The self -belief in my ability had never deserted me, everything was still there. It was just that my ability needed some fine tuning.

"I am far more comfortable with my decision-making these days, and there are fewer mistakes. Unfortunately for all Gomarsall's battling spirit ultimately he was unable to help Bedford over their last hurdle and save them from the drop - "I damaged the posterior cruciate ligament in my right knee in the last Premiership match against Sale," he said. "It meant I had to sit out the play-off matches against Rotherham. That was a desperate time. It was so frustrating not being able to go out there and try to do something about it."

Bedford lost and were relegated, Gomarsall and a number of leading players left the club. It was only to be expected. Firstly the players needed top-flight rugby and were good enough to carry on at the highest level, secondly the previous owners of the club had left too many loose ends administratively and not enough loose change to pay the players.

Gomarsall found that he had attracted much interest. "There were other offers," he says, "but Gloucester were first and I have to admit I really liked them. They seemed genuinely interested in me. I liked the way the coach Philippe Saint-André operated and I was excited by what they were offering, by their vision for their future. I also liked the fact that they are still a traditional club, yet they are up there and challenging with the best."

So, crocked as he was - an injury which meant he could not be considered for England's tour of South Africa - he had to spend the summer in rehabilitation, watching the queue for the England No 9 slot grow longer and longer.

Apart from Matt Dawson, who also missed the tour, there is Kyran Bracken and Nick Walshe of Saracens, a former colleague at Wasps, Martyn Wood, and Scott Benton, oddly, formerly of Gloucester but now with Leeds; somewhere at the wrong end of this tailback stands Gomarsall.

But if he appears to be helpless do not be fooled. He is a driven man. "I want to get better," he says. He has spent the last three months working hard on his fitness. The knee is now just about 100 per cent, although Gomarsall has no intention of rushing back. "They told me it would be four months before it would be OK and so I am aiming for the beginning of September. I would like to be fit for Gloucester's match at Newcastle," he said.

Gomarsall has had expert guidance throughout his convalescence. It has taken place under the watchful eye of Margot Wells, wife of Olympic Gold medallist Allan. "Margot has been fantastic for me," says Gomarsall. "She is my fitness coach and I feel I am fitter and more of a physical presence than I have ever been. I am ready to start pushing really hard for an England place."

It looks as if one man's learning curve is about to be straightened out.