Little still has large ambitions

Hugh Godwin meets Gloucester's latest world-class import from Oz
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The Independent Online

The Zurich Premiership's home for clapped-out rugby players is getting a bad name. The overseas imports supposedly winding down with one more payday before they hit the knacker's yard are proving to be anything but knackered.

The Zurich Premiership's home for clapped-out rugby players is getting a bad name. The overseas imports supposedly winding down with one more payday before they hit the knacker's yard are proving to be anything but knackered.

David Wilson, Australia's most-capped forward, has been a star performer in the multi-colours of Harlequins, while Thomas Castaignÿde has sparkled in Saracens' rise to the top of the league. When Tim Horan is fit to play, he can surely be relied upon by Sarries to provide a quality link between the Frenchman and another Aussie recruit, Duncan McRae.

Gloucester, meanwhile, have been feeling the benefit of Ian Jones' nous in the pack for almost a year. The New Zealander marshalled a maraudingeffort among the forwards that did for Bristol last week, and laid the platform for two tries on his debut by the latest arrival on these shores, Jason Little. It would have been a hat-trick had Phil Vickery followed through with his outrageously dummied pass in the second half.

Little was not complaining. A win over West Country opposition, in front of 6,500 cheering Shedheads, and with the man himself only "75 per cent fit" after a knee injury, was just fine. "I was happy to get it out of the way," said Little. "Now I want to get my teeth into the season, and get more comfortable with the players around me. I'm excited about this move."

The day after the game, and "feeling a little sore", he met up with his old friend Horan for lunch in Bath. "I never thought we would both end up here," said Little. "We first met playing rugby league against each other at about 10 or 11, in Queensland. But I guess everything else we have done has gone in parallel, so why not this?"

Gloucester's offer, reportedly bumped up out of owner Tom Walkinshaw's own pocket when negotiations got sticky, came in the nick of time to stop Little moving to France. "I got a world-class player in the forwards last year," said the Gloucester coach, Philippe Saint-André. "This year I wanted one in the backs."

There has been talk of Little yet adding to his 75 caps for Australia, but the 30-year-old speaks of his Test career with an air of finality. "I've enjoyed all the great results, but the most difficult thing is to leave the people I've played with. Those memories and friendships far outweigh any trophies I've won."

Although Little played throughout Australia's winning Tri-Nations campaign this year, he was on the bench for the first three Tests of the season, just as he had been in the knockout phase of the World Cup last year. "I'm already used to watching the Wallabies play," he said, pointedly.

From high school in Toowoomba, near Brisbane, Little and Horan graduated to full Wallaby status together on tour in France in November 1989. A sunlit Strasbourg afternoon lent a suitably golden backdrop as the wider world got its first glimpse of possibly the greatest centre combination ever seen. A comforting cocoon of experience was prov- ided by Nick Farr-Jones, Michael Lynagh and David Campese, and it all clicked as France were routed 32-15.

Rothmans Rugby Yearbook predicted "a bright future for many members of the heroic winning team, notably Horan and Little in the backs". Two years later almost to the day, Australia won the World Cup at Twickenham.

After the last-gasp quarter-final win over Ireland, Wallaby captain Farr-Jones remarked: "Every time we get a scrum near the line, I feel we have a better-than-average chance of scoring with such a strong midfield." Horan, stocky and fleet of foot, and Little, taller and leaner, were the classical mix at 12 and 13, although latterly the positions have been blurred by modern theory.

"I was at outside-centre against Bristol," said Little, "and even though I was inside- centre in Super 12, I was out on the wing for some moves and at outside-centre for others. The days of the traditional roles have gone." Even so, Gloucester's inside-centre Chris Yates has the build of a Horan and is second only to Castaignÿde in the Zurich Premiership index of clean breaks. There is every reason to believe that Little will make 13 a lucky number for Gloucester.

The club's up-and-down season took a further turn for the better with Friday night's 27-20 win at Llanelli in the Heineken Cup. But Little, who scored after switching to fly-half to cover for the injured Simon Mannix, insisted: "Winning the European Cup is not the goal. The goal is to put a few basics right."

Another ambition is to spend more time with his wife, Bridget, whose twin sister is married to Wilson. "I have had years of living out of suitcases," said Little. "It will be nice for us to get to know each other again."