Guscott prefers future challenges over past glories

For all his exploits on the rugby field as one of the greatest outside-centres it was his trial that propelled him into the public eye
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Jeremy Guscott is not accustomed to minor walk-on parts at Twickenham, but at half-time on Saturday, during England's keenly-anticipated match against the world champions Australia, on he will walk.

It is like Sir Ian McKellen going back to the National Theatre to play a spear-carrier. But that is not to decry 36-year-old Guscott's heroic endeavour, for a month ago he embarked on an 800-mile walk to all 12 of rugby union's Premiership grounds, his aim to raise £250,000 for leukaemia research.

The finishing line is Twickenham and Saturday afternoon won't come a moment too soon.

"Below the waist it's pretty bad news," he says in his phlegmatic way. I attempt some weak innuendo which he rightly ignores. "Hips, knees, soles, at the end of each day you don't know what's going to hurt most. It's the equivalent of walking a marathon every day for 28 days, and after the first three I could have happily jumped in a car and put it all down to a bad dream. I've gone through four or five pairs of trainers. And every day's the same. It's like Groundwayhog Day."

His misery is infectious. By the end of our phone conversation I feel thoroughly morose, although it has to be said that our initial encounter, at the London office of his publisher, Headline, is not a great deal more joyous. Guscott does not do bright and breezy. For most of our hour-long conversation he exudes faint boredom, his languid, leonine air compounded by the physical beauty which has one or two of Headline's female employees openly agog.

Guscott, who retired from playing rugby earlier this year, has just written a highly readable autobiography, which starts promisingly with the word 'Prison'. For all his exploits on the rugby field as one of the greatest of all outside-centres and surely the most elegant, it was Guscott's 1999 trial at Bristol Crown Court, at which he was accused (and cleared) of committing grievous bodily harm in a road-rage incident, that propelled him most forcibly into the public eye. I ask why he chose to start the book with that episode?

"Because it's so clear in my mind," he says. "As time passes bits of it will drift away, but I'll never, ever forget entering the court for the first time and sitting in the dock, or the clerk asking the foreman of the jury if they'd reached a verdict. Only people who've been through a trial can possibly know what it's like. The prosecution, saying you're guilty, guilty, guilty. Then the defence, saying innocent, innocent, innocent. Then the result." Fleetingly, Guscott's face registers what might even be emotion.

In the book, he recalls receiving a letter, during the early stages of the trial, from a man in Shepley, West Yorkshire.

The man hoped that he would receive a lengthy prison sentence, and continued: "All types of ball games these days seem to attract violent characters far more efficient with their fists and their feet than with the brain section. While certainly not confined to any ethnic type, percentages seem to show that dusky characters are too well represented ... I often note that the 'Collymores' of sport appear to have a large chip on their shoulder which creates these aggressive outbursts." In print, Guscott dismisses these revolting sentiments glibly. "Charming. Glad he didn't find his way on to the jury," he writes. Perhaps that is the best way to deal with them. It is certainly his preferred way. When I ask whether racism has ever loomed large in his life, he seems anxious not to linger on the subject.

"As a kid, when I moved from one part of Bath to the other, I remember being called nig-nog and sambo for the first time. But I never considered myself black. I was just little old Jeremy. And I never heard anything like that from the crowd or from another player."

I remind Guscott of another passage in the book, which describes the aftermath of the 1990 Five Nations game at Murrayfield, where a famously super-charged performance by the Scots denied England a Grand Slam. At the post-match dinner, Will Carling told Guscott that in the course of the match, Scott Hastings had called him an "English black bastard". Hastings duly apologised. "But I didn't hear it," Guscott tells me, firmly. "It doesn't affect me if I don't hear it."

The subject is closed, so let us talk about his captain and fellow centre, Carling, to whom Guscott devotes the best part of a chapter, and rather damns with faint praise. For example: "He realised pretty early on the commercial advantage of being England captain. Some, like Jeff Probyn, took exception to that. I didn't. Good luck to the bloke."

When I press him on Carling, Guscott continues to damn with faint praise.

"We weren't mates, but we weren't enemies. He was just a guy I played rugby with. The difference between him and Jason Leonard is that I still speak [to Leonard] two or three times a week on the phone, whereas Will phones me up when he wants me to do something. I don't dislike him by any stretch of the imagination. He did a hard job. It's difficult to be captain outside numbers one to 10."

And Carling the player? "He could do things I couldn't do, and I could do things he couldn't. He pretty much went up and down the line. Occasionally he'd break outside. He did give me the odd pass to continue a move."

England's failure to win the 2001 Grand Slam underlines yet again what a mighty feat it was to win back-to-back Slams in 1991 and 1992, yet the team's forward-dominated, kicking style of play did not remotely suit Guscott. Indeed, it is not entirely true to say he is unaccustomed to walk-on roles at Twickenham; there were entire matches to which he made only a peripheral contribution.

"Yeah, I was redundant, basically," he says (in the book he writes: "We are down in the record books as winners and that is no mean achievement. But in terms of developing the sport and playing exciting rugby, it was a step backwards. Will Carling has to take much of the responsibility for that. He was the captain and very influential.")

"I can say now that I wish I could have changed it, but I was lucky in that I played for Bath, where we played expressive rugby with great freedom. Bath played in a way I really enjoyed. And we were winning, too. If someone scored two tries against us, we'd score five. Given parity up front, I would back the best back line I played in at Bath against any of the back lines I played in with England."

Of all his colleagues at Bath, however, he reserves most praise for the back-row forward Jon Hall. Again, I draw his attention to his book, in which he provocatively asserts that Mickey Skinner of Harlequins and England was not worthy, as a blindside flanker, of lacing Hall's boots. "Mickey Skinner was a good player, but Jon Hall was one of the best players I played with," he tells me, in slightly less inflammatory fashion. "Mickey Skinner might see it differently, I don't know."

I suppose Guscott's own abilities entitle him to make blunt assessments of others'. I once invited Bill McLaren to pick his greatest all-time Lions team, and alongside Mike Gibson in the centre – outside Gareth Edwards and Barry John, with David Duckham and Gerald Davies on the wings and Andy Irvine at full-back pipping JPR Williams – the great man unhesitantly chose Guscott.

Praise indeed. But who, I ask Guscott, are the players he has most enjoyed watching? "Well, Jonah Lonu is the biggest name in rugby there's ever been," he says.

"I had the privilege of playing with him for the Baa-baas against England last May, and he's incredible. In 1995 when he came on the scene we couldn't believe what was going on. He's a phenomenon and thankfully he's in rugby, because there's a guy who can sell the sport all over the world.

"David Campese was a magician. And Michael Jones, the New Zealand flanker, was another exceptional player, a prototype, before his time. He always appeared in places you didn't expect him to.

"Right now, I think Brian O'Driscoll is the best centre in the world. He has no fear, and he'll take the ball anywhere on a field, either because he sees a gap, or to find one. He's creating memories. Great players do that."

Among the many memories created by Guscott himself, the most indelible is surely the drop goal in Durban that clinched the 1997 Lions series against South Africa. But as paradoxical as it sounds from a man promoting his autobiography, he says he prefers not to dwell on the past.

"Especially the bad bits, like losing. Once it's gone that's it. It's deleted. It never reappears. I have no regrets about rugby, although I would like to have been a world champion, that would have been something. Look at those England footballers from 1966. Those guys are revered."

The forthcoming England v Australia match will not, he says, bring back memories of the same fixture at the same venue 10 years ago, when England lost the World Cup final. Does he think the Wallabies will prevail on Saturday? "I understand they haven't played well recently, but Twickenham will give them a lift. They are certainly favourites. But fitness-wise, since Clive [Woodward] brought in [fitness-coach] Dave Reddin, we are as good as them if not above them. What we need to work on is our mental side and maybe our skills."

Have England adequately replaced him? "I'm not sure they need a player like me now. In [Mike] Catt they have a player who can open up a game with a pass, and another player in [Will] Greenwood who can open it up with a sidestep. He opens it up close, like a boxer gets in close, while Catt unleashes a 40-metre pass which is very difficult to defend. I didn't do either of those things."

"As for Saturday, I think [Austin] Healey has to start, and Matt Perry should definitely play at full-back. But really, there's not much at stake."

As opposed to the recent match against Ireland, where again the Grand Slam eluded England. I ask Guscott whether he ascribes the under-par performance in Dublin to over-confidence? He gives me short shrift. "Talk of over-confidence is a cop-out by people who don't understand the game. You can make a judgement on the performance, but when you see the work that goes into these games, you know there's no over-confidence.

"England lost to Scotland [in 1990, a result which despite his protestations that it's gone, deleted, never to reappear, evidently still rankles] not because we were over-confident, but because we were naïve. Arrogance doesn't show its face in rugby. The great All Blacks sides, Leicester, Australia, they're confident, but not over-confident. You lose games because you get the tactics wrong, not because you were expecting to win. Every good team expects to win."

Which brings us back to Saturday, and a contest between two good teams both expecting to win. Not that the match is weighing too heavily on Guscott's mind right now. He is more excited by the prospect of finishing his fund-raising walk, which he agreed to undertake when Ian Botham quite understandably declined to do a fifth.

After that, he has the rest of his life to sort out (the walk, he says, provided lots of good thinking time). On the personal front, he and his wife Jayne, mother of his three daughters, have just separated. On the professional front, he is eager to do more reporting for the BBC. "I remember watching Gary Lineker walking down the 18th at St Andrews with Arnold Palmer," he says. "And I thought 'if you can do that, I want at least a chance'."

'Jeremy Guscott: The Autobiography' is published by Headline, priced £18.99. To contribute to the Leukaemia Research fund, contact 020 7269 9005 or www.tetleystrek.co.uk

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