The lofty goals of Mapletoft

Paul Trow says Gloucester's fly-half is eyeing a cup final and a tour place
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Adaptability ought to be Mark Mapletoft's middle name. He is only 25 yet he has already successfully switched sports, switched clubs and switched positions. He has also survived a long battle with knee damage that would have scuppered many a career.

This season he is English rugby's leading points scorer and his name is being whispered as a possible selection for England's summer tour of Argentina, if not the Lions trip to South Africa. But of more immediate concern to him is Gloucester's Pilkington Cup semi-final with Leicester on Saturday. "It's already sold out and the place will be heaving. It will be brilliant, especially as not many of the Leicester lads have played in front of a packed Kingsholm before," said the stocky Mapletoft, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Stuart Barnes, the former Bath and England fly-half.

Like Barnes, he also wears the No 10 shirt, but it was not always so. Before this season Mapletoft had played most of his rugby at full-back. "Full-backs are traditionally 15 stone and six foot whereas I'm only 13st and 5ft 7in," he said. "I tried fly-half a few times when I played at Rugby, but it was during my lay-off that I started to consider it seriously.

"I spoke to a few people about it, including Richard Hill [Gloucester's director of coaching] and my agent Mike Burton [the former Gloucester, England and Lions prop]. Chris Catling, the England under-21 full-back, joining the club helped me make my mind up. I spent six weeks in South Africa last summer playing for a club in Cape Town and my main ambition this season was to hold down my place at Gloucester - nothing more, especially as we already had a steady fly-half in Martyn Kimber.

"Switching positions wasn't easy and losing our first five games made it even harder. The half-backs' job is to shape the game, but both myself and our scrum-half Scott Benton were inexperienced. It took time for us to settle. There's a lot of emphasis on making the right decisions. Fortunately my kicking has gone well. I'd say my strength as a kicker is accuracy rather than distance."

Dave Alred, guru to most of Britain's leading kickers, had qualified praise for Mapletoft. "When I saw him recently at Bristol he kicked quite poorly. Confidence seems to be crucial to him but I suspect he needs a sounder technique to withstand pressure at the highest level. That's not a criticism of Mark, rather of the system which leaves kickers to their own devices."

Mapletoft was an established place-kicker when he joined Gloucester in August 1994 after more than 100 games with Rugby. Despite being an England schoolboy international, he still keeps football as his first love. He was on Coventry City's books from the ages of 14 to 17 as a right-back but rejected the offer of a two-year youth deal.

"Not many make it in football so I decided to stay at school and get my qualifications. If Coventry had offered me the chance of continuing my education I might have signed, but I do regret it. I love football - I'm a mad Nottingham Forest supporter. Even today I'd rather watch a game of football than rugby."

Mapletoft, halfway through a two-year full-time contract with Gloucester, is still studying - for a Masters degree in leisure and tourism management at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education. His studies helped keep him sane during an enforced lay-off that began in January 1995 when, five days before he was due to make his England A debut, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a Courage League game.

Mapletoft did not play again until 14 months and three operations later. He was set on the road to recovery when a piece of tendon was transplanted from the middle of his knee cap. "It was one of the worst injuries you can get - I could only move the leg in a straight line, not laterally. Only now am I playing without the thought of it somewhere in the back of my mind."

Which only emphasises how he has come to find himself on the threshold of a prestigious summer tour. "To be honest, the Lions has never entered my head. I'm probably fourth in the England pecking order behind Paul Grayson, Mike Catt and Alex King, so playing for England A this season has been a bonus. The tour of Argentina is a more realistic target but after my setbacks I don't think it is right to count on something before it happens. Otherwise you set yourself up for a big fall. If it comes then great, but if not then so be it."

The Boot Brigade: Kicking guru Dave Alred gives his verdict on the Lions challengers

Jonathan Davies

(Cardiff and Wales)

He is very good under pressure and I think he will be pretty effective as a place kicker in the High Veld where the ball has a tendency to fly further. He has done it all in his career, both in union and when he turned professional in league. All that experience should prove to be invaluable. In the possible absence of Neil Jenkins, he is one of the kickers with proven pedigree.

Jon Callard

(Bath and England)

If you're looking for those who have kicked under pressure, then you have to consider Callard. He consistently lands 70-80 per cent of his kicks and proved his temperament when he clinched victory over Scotland in 1994 with a successful last-minute penalty at Murrayfield. The game seems to be developing its own stats industry, and Callard must be right up there.

Paul Grayson

(Northampton and England)

He has phenomenal potential. I worked with him briefly last year before the Wales game which was too little too late. In that game he kicked well to start with and then fell away. But towards the end, when the pressure increased, he got it back together again which was incredible. Afterwards, he came to see me, worked hard and got a lot of points over the remaining internationals.

Mike Catt

(Bath and England)

I was involved with Mike before the Welsh match. I worked with him from Wednesday to Saturday morning and pushed him pretty hard - I felt he needed it as he doesn't often kick for Bath. Some of his strikes weren't particularly good, but, overall, he did well under pressure and only missed two kicks, one at goal and one punt which came straight back.

Paul Burke

(Bristol and Ireland)

He landed eight penalties for Ireland against Italy earlier this season and has been kicking well for Bristol. When they beat Gloucester recently, he out-kicked Mapletoft and that proved the difference. Of the other Irish kickers, David Humphreys has a lot of potential but needs more exposure at club level, and Eric Ellwood has worked hard to regain his touch.

Rowen Shepherd

(Melrose and Scotland)

He may not kick regularly for his club but he has done well for Scotland this season. He is very methodical and kept them in touch in a couple of their Five Nations games. He also kicked well on Scotland's tour to New Zealand last summer - in one of the Tests he clocked up 16 points when his team-mates were up against it.

Interview: Paul Trow