Lee Mears says he can see light at the end of the tunnel – a tunnel so long, he has spent the last 18 months trying to find a way out – and being an optimistic sort, he is not willing to countenance the possibility that it belongs to an onrushing express train.
"I've had my disappointments on the England front just recently," the Lions Test hooker from Bath admits, "and there is always a danger of the 'out of sight, out of mind' syndrome kicking in. But it will soon be World Cup year and I give myself a chance of playing a part in the tournament. I definitely haven't written myself off."
Can he be serious? Apparently so. "I know I'm fourth or fifth choice at the moment," he continues, "but I want to find a way back into the set-up. Having watched England play through the autumn, pushing New Zealand hard and beating the Wallabies so convincingly, I'm envious of all the people involved. People have played their way back in before: a few months before the last World Cup, where was Mark Regan in the pecking order? And who was it who found himself playing in the final?"
It was a good point, well made. But if Mears, all 5ft 8in of him, is to fly down to New Zealand this coming August as anything other than an interested onlooker or a supporters' tour guide, he needs two things to happen. Firstly, Martin Johnson will have to apostatise himself by picking one of the smallest players available to him at the expense of one of the largest in the 6ft 2in, 19st-plus shape of Steve Thompson – not a development that appears terribly likely, given the England manager's unashamedly sizeist approach to the recent autumn internationals. Secondly (and this is where it gets really difficult for the 31-year-old Devonian, given that Bath have not won a serious game of rugby for almost three months), things will have to improve dramatically at club level. The phrase "don't hold your breath" springs to mind.
Bath are in a difficult place right now, and if they fail to beat Ulster in a do-or-die Heineken Cup tie at the Recreation Ground, their situation will worsen significantly. Like Leicester, the West Countrymen take an extra-special interest in the sport's premier club tournament and pride themselves on being an integral part of its rich tapestry. Unlike Leicester, their claim to be taken seriously as major European contenders grows weaker by the season. Only three times have they appeared in the knockout stage since becoming the first English team to win the title, a dozen years ago, and as things are, they stand every chance of missing out on the competition entirely next season.
Yet Mears, back between the shafts after recovering from a ruptured biceps, believes there was more to last weekend's defeat by the same opposition in Belfast than another routine blow to the collective solar plexus. "Yes, it was frustrating to finish on the wrong side of things once again," he acknowledges. "But if the game told us anything, it was that we're not far off turning it around. There are times when you lose and you say to yourself: 'Jesus, they were miles better than us.' Equally, there are times when you think: 'If only we'd done this or that, it might have gone our way.' That's how we felt after the game at Ravenhill – that we'd actually performed quite well in certain respects.
"We made 170 tackles against Ulster, and at one point, the count was something like 100-plus to 20. That shows we're pretty good defensively. We've known that for a while, and we're working hard to freshen up our attacking game. The sooner we start hanging on to possession and applying some pressure of our own, the better. It's all very well making tackles for hours on end, but at some point you need to get your hands on the ball and keep hold of the thing for a while."
Back in June of last year, he was touring South Africa with the British and Irish Lions and conquering one of the high peaks of rugby's mountain range by making the cut for the first meeting with the Springboks in Durban. Had Jerry Flannery, the abrasive Irishman, not injured himself on the eve of departure from Heathrow, the race for that Test place might have been more of a close-run thing, but in the circumstances that prevailed, Mears was the obvious choice. Unfortunately, things went so badly on the scrummaging front that day that neither he nor his fellow West Countryman, the tight-head prop Phil Vickery, survived the game – or, indeed, the selection meeting for the Pretoria Test seven days later.
From the great summit of rugby achievement, Mears found himself sliding down to sea level at breakneck speed. He lost form – there were few glimpses of his bright-eyed footballing sparkle around the field last season, even though his set-piece technique held together – and even though he toured Australia and New Zealand with England in June, he finished the tour out of the frame, behind Thompson, George Chuter and, arguably, the uncapped Rob Webber of Wasps. Given that Dylan Hartley of Northampton, the outstanding hooker in the country, missed the trip because of injury, Mears knew he would be up against it when Johnson revamped his elite squad. Sure enough, he found himself demoted to the second-string Saxons squad.
"That was the moment I took myself off to a quiet corner and spent some time reassessing my goals," he says. "I think there was a falling-off of form after the Lions: a lot of players experience it, and now I understand why. You don't see the danger signs when you go straight from a long tour into a new club campaign without a proper pre-season, but as that campaign unfolds, the problems become obvious. You don't have the base fitness, so physical tiredness kicks in. And there's the mental fatigue too. The Lions environment is incredibly intense, and when you return home, getting up for games is an issue.
"What I had last summer, for the first time in a while, was a really good build-up. I don't especially enjoy being beasted on the training field for weeks on end – I'm getting too old for that kind of thing – but it's a necessary process if you're going to start a season well. That's why the biceps injury was so frustrating in its timing. I felt fit and I was really enthusiastic about my rugby. A bout of surgery was the last thing I needed at that point."
And the last thing Bath need is another home defeat today, to set alongside the breaches of Recreation Ground security by Gloucester, Saracens and Wasps at Premiership level and the costly slip-up against Biarritz on the opening Heineken Cup weekend. The Basques may have muddied the waters in Pool 4 by finding a way to lose against the Italian whipping boys of Aironi last Saturday – "By that yardstick, our bonus-point win down in Italy in October makes us look pretty good," Mears says with a smirk – but Ulster are the ones best placed to take advantage.
"We know we're not playing well," the hooker admits, "but we're doing everything we can to work it out among ourselves. We're missing one or two of our gamebreakers: we haven't seen Butch James this season and Luke Watson has been injured. As a consequence, we've made ourselves predictable by playing too much side-to-side stuff, which costs you when so many games are decided by three or five points. There again, we spent the first half of last season playing rubbish rugby, yet won 11 out of 12 Premiership games after Christmas and put ourselves in the semi-finals.
"If we can just win this game against Ulster, we'll give ourselves an opportunity to progress in Europe. Yes, we still have to travel to Biarritz, but we're normally pretty good on French soil and we'd go there with some confidence. It's like the international situation. Once things start going well, anything is possible."Reuse content