Tim Glover: Staunton plays the baggage handler

Overtones abound as Irishman lines up against the mates his missed kick sent down
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The Independent Online

Apart from appointments with his orthopaedic surgeon, what does a professional rugby player do on his day off? On Thursday Jeremy Staunton and his Wasps team-mate Eoin Reddan witnessed the premature ejection of Tiger Woods at the World Match Play Championship. The two Irish inter-nationals are just about on speaking terms.

Before driving to Wentworth, Staunton had to visit his dentist to have 16 stitches removed from his lower lip, an injury suffered during Wasps' victory over Saracens in the season's opener at Twickenham. But it was not a Saracen boot that caught his mouth. It was scrum-half Reddan. "I was caught at the bottom of a ruck and Eoin was trying to extract the ball," Staunton said. "He didn't know anything about it. I was so pissed off I was going to cite him. That would've been a first. He did say sorry afterwards."

Scrum-halves in the Guinness Premiership should carry a health warning. Johnny Howard of Northampton has been banned for stamping and Paul Hodgson of London Irish has been cited for a dangerous tackle against Wasps.

This evening Staunton, Reddan and the prop Peter Bracken will take a flight to Dublin to join an Ireland training camp, part of the build-up to Tests against South Africa and Australia in November.

A few hours earlier they will have to negotiate another London derby when Wasps, unbeaten, play Harlequins, 0 for 2, at High Wycombe, where Staunton will be at inside-centre with Dave Walder at stand-off. "I've never experienced anything like this league," Staunton said. "Every week there's a massive game." And this one, for Staunton, comes with extra baggage.

Few players in the Premiership have been put under the kind of pressure Staunton had to endure on 30 April 2005, at the end of a nerve-racking season. Staunton, then the Quins stand-off, had a chance in the last minute to kick a penalty that would have pipped Sale and brought salvation to the Stoop. The ball drifted inches wide and the mighty Quins were relegated. Cue fear and loathing in west London.

"I went through my routine and it was the same as if I was taking any other kick," Staunton recalls. "I did everything right. I struck it well, made good contact and it looked to be going over. It didn't. Most kickers understand this. On another day it would have gone over. Whether it missed by an inch or a mile the outcome was the same, and the consequences were huge. Relegation was not something we'd considered. People wondered how I could live with myself, but I got over it as soon as I missed it. Quins went down because they lost their first eight games and their last five, not because Jeremy Staunton missed a kick. Afterwards I didn't feel like going into the clubhouse. I drove home to spend a few hours on my own then met up with some friends and team-mates at a pub. It was almost like the world had ended."

For Staunton it got worse. Quins' policy was to hold most of the players to contract in an effort, which proved successful last season, to go straight back up. "It was a chaotic time. A lot of my team-mates got calls telling them they were staying. Why wasn't anybody ringing me? I put two and two together."

Mark Evans, the chief executive, who had described Staun-ton's penalty failure as "the most expensive miss in the history of rugby", told him he was surplus to requirements. The All Black Andrew Mehrtens had already been signed, though there was an embargo on the announcement.

"It was a sickening blow," Staunton says. "I was gone and I had to find myself a job. I thought to myself, 'Jesus, you're really in a professional business here'. Regardless of the spin the club put on it, a lot of players tried to leave but couldn't."

Staunton did what lost souls do, returning home to Limerick, where his father is a farmer, to chew the fat with his family. "I was pretty down at the time but then everything changed. If a week is a long time in politics the same is true of the Premiership." Wasps offered him a two-year contract in June last year and Ireland - he has four caps, the first awarded against Samoa in 2001 - took him on their tour to Japan. This summer he made their squad for the trip to New Zealand and Australia.

Although coming from Gaelic football and hurling territory, Staunton took to rugby at St Munchins, the school that produced Keith Wood, Anthony Foley and Marcus Horan. When John Hall, the former Bath and England flanker, was the coach of Garryowen he recruited Staunton as an 18-year-old stand-off, and in 1999 he was offered a contract with Munster.

"It was the start of Munster's big push in Europe. We beat Saracens at Vicarage Road when winning away from home was unheard-of, and the whole thing was fantastic. I just thought it was the norm." Staunton spent six years with Munster, but the No 10 jersey belonged to Ronan O'Gara. "They saw me as a full- back and I wanted to prove myself as an out-half. It was time to cross the water."

Staunton knew that Paul Burke was leaving Harlequins, so the Stoop it was. He scored a lot of points there but missed the one kick that, rightly or wrongly, has his name on it rather than that of the ball manufacturer Gilbert.

"Things have turned out for the better," Staunton, now a fully rounded 26-year-old, says. "Wasps is the sort of club where you have to earn respect. I admire the work of Ian McGeechan and Shaun Edwards and so far the season's gone really well."

Victories over Saracens and London Irish are one thing; today's encounter against a side captained by Paul Volley, the former Wasps stalwart, is overladen with overtones. "I still have a lot of friends at Quins," Staunton says. "Of course I followed them last season and I knew they'd be promoted. I haven't been back to the Stoop but I've passed it often enough."