A day with: England's 'Prince of centres'

Matt Jones 27/11/2015
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Guscott in his laying days for England.

Jeremy Guscott is one of rugby’s finest pundits, and he was once one of the game’s finest backs – his nickname, the ‘prince of centres’, saying it all.

Guscott’s elegant running style made him stand out, and he enjoyed notable successes with England, winning back-to-back Five Nations Grand Slams in 1991 and 1992.

But perhaps his crowning moment was his iconic drop goal that saw the British & Irish Lions beat South Africa 18-15 in the second Test to win the 1997 series.

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He played his entire club career with home town Bath, who dominated the domestic game in the 1990’s, winning five English Premiership titles in six years, while they also won the Heineken Cup in the 1997-98 season.

Matt Jones caught up with Guscott to discuss his career, punditry work and love for the Emirates.

You were working in the UAE recently as a pundit for OSN’s Rugby World Cup coverage, but we hear you spend quite a lot of time in the UAE apart from working for OSN?
I bring my wife here and my brother’s been living out here for 17 years, so I’ve got nieces and nephews here, my sister in law and I play a lot of golf too at Emirates Golf Club and Dubai Creek Resort.

I get down to Abu Dhabi too and the three course down there are off the chart. In Dubai my favourite is Emirates and the Majlis, without doubt, but I do like to get down to Abu Dhabi.

You and Scott Gibbs teamed up for OSN during the World Cup. You quite memorably teamed up in your playing days too…
I know Scott better from being on two British & Irish Lions tours. On the field our partnership worked.

In 1993 in the first Test against New Zealand I was with Will Carling. Then Ian McGeechan had the foresight to think Gibbs was playing well, I was playing half decently, ‘let’s put them together and see how it goes’.

We played a game together against Canterbury before the second Test and it just clicked. McGeechan saw it happening and thought ‘let’s go for it’. From that point there was never a sign of a divorce or a break-up. We just went from ‘93 and it flowed into ‘97.

Outside and inside centres are two different positions but you and Gibbs really were ying and yang weren’t you?
Gibbsy did his thing. He looked after affairs really. He was the enforcer on the field. Some of the things he was saying to the South Africans on the field in ‘97 I can’t repeat, but he backed it up. He wound them up and forced them to come at him, which they did, and he smashed them back.

He wanted that confrontation. I said ‘all yours Gibbsy’ and told him to just give me the ball in a bit of space and I’ll try and do my best. That’s the way it worked.

John Bentley was on that ‘97 tour, where camaraderie was evident. Almost every proper rugby fan loves Living with Lions and he seemed to be chief joker.

Was he?
The brilliance of Bentos was he came from rugby league and he is a huge personality.

We played Northern Transvaal and I’d never come across sledging before. I’d never been sledged anyway. I remember Bentos, before the kick off, we were on the pitch warming up, and he was sledging the opposition winger.

He’s speaking to me loud enough so the winger can hear, and I can’t repeat the kind of language he was using, but he was basically saying he’s not very good, I’m going to run round him and score some tries.

The reality was that winger ran round him twice and scored two tries and Bentos got taken off. As well as his wise-cracking, permanently having a camcorder strapped to the side of his face, that’s my abiding memory of him.

We’ve just witnessed a great 2015 Rugby World Cup. Do you have fond personal memories of playing in World Cups?
Personally, I never played well in World Cups. It just never happened for me. I never had standout games against the best opposition.

I’ve never watched the 1991 final back against Australia, I’m not one who likes to dwell on disappointment. I’m not going to benefit from watching that. It’ll just make me more disappointed than when we lost it.

Up until the final though it must have been pretty exciting, playing at home?
It was just a rollercoaster. You had no idea what was coming next. I was a new international at the time.

Guscott against Italy at the 1991 World Cup.

We’d won a Grand Slam so we were fairly confident and happy, but then we knew we were playing New Zealand and it wasn’t going to be easy.

We weren’t favourites and we lost but from that moment on it was just one massive ride and the feel-good factor just didn’t stop. Wherever you went there were pats on the back and people wishing us good luck for Saturday.

It was flat when we lost the final but we got there and gave it our best shot. It didn’t work out and we should have stuck to what got us there. Those are the lessons you learn, even if they were too late.

What about 1995?
We got to the semis and we got ‘Lomu’d’. I was one of the backs that was thinking ‘bloody hell, thank god he didn’t run in my direction’.

Tony (Underwood) got blasted and then Catty (Mike Catt) at the end. You feel for your team-mates. Catty held him up but I don’t think anyone did particularly well against Lomu, apart from South Africa who managed to shut him down.

And 1999 you got injured and retired after the Tonga game… 
I got inured again. It was nice to sign off with the length of the pitch try against Tonga but it was Tonga, we thrashed them.

The beauty of playing at home is that you have just got so much support. Away from home you’ve got a few fans. OK they’re patting you on the back and cheering you, but with the different time zones it’s difficult to get the balance.

If you’re at home you win and feel good but if you lose that weight of expectation gets bigger, like England had in this World Cup.

Who’s the best player in the world right now?
I like Ben Smith. He’s a phenomenal player and his skill set is just off the chart. I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do.

Smith, for me, can play fly-half, full-back, wing and centre. He is the most complete three-quarter in the world.

What was your career highlight?
I don’t have one because I’ve been fortunate to play for a great club side and a good international team and have been on three Lions tours.

My memory of rugby matches is incredibly poor because I always thought about the next game and didn’t dwell on the last one. Win or lose it doesn’t help me play the next game.

I really haven’t got an abiding memory, it’s the winning of the leagues and cups with Bath, Grand Slams with England and tours with the Lions, and the mates I’ve made along the way.

Who are the best players you played with and against?
The best centre partnership, or the hardest and most challenging one I played against was (Tim) Horan and (Jason) Little of Australia.

A lot of centres I played with helped me at different stages, so Simon Halliday when I first started. Will Carling with England and Gibbsy with the Lions.

I’d have liked to have played more rugby with Will Greenwood because of the way he played. I think that would have flowed and I could have read what he was doing, but after 97 he had a few problems with confidence and it took him a while to get back.

Philippe Sella was the hardest player I ever got hit by. He managed to find all the soft spots. You didn’t always see it coming and he wasn’t the biggest player but his timing was perfect.

Read Jeremy Guscott’s exclusive column in Sport360° every Monday.

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INTERVIEW: RWC star Sonny Bill Williams

Matt Jones 25/11/2015
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Sonny Bill Williams lifts aloft the Rugby World Cup last month.

Fresh from playing a crucial role as New Zealand’s super sub during their triumphant 2015 Rugby World Cup campaign, the hugely popular Sonny Bill Williams is set to visit Dubai. 

The celebrated dual-code international was a ruthlessly effective impact player for the imperious All Blacks as they retained the Webb Ellis Cup in England last month, beating arch-rivals Australia in the final at Twickenham.

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And Williams, lauded worldwide for his generosity after he gave his winner’s medal to a starstruck young fan, will be the guest of honour when he appears at next weekend’s Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens (Dec 3-5).

The 30-year-old will not be playing but will spend time meeting fans and cheering on the New Zealand team, whom he hopes to join for a shot at gold at next year’s Rio Olympics.   

Williams will be in Dubai in December for the opening leg of the 2015-16 World Sevens Series.

How excited are you about coming to the Dubai Rugby Sevens?

I’ve watched it on TV before so I’m really excited about coming to see it live. I’ve been in contact with Tietjs (Sir Gordon Tietjens, New Zealand sevens coach) and he’s pretty keen to get me there. I’ll probably sit down and watch a few games with them and just try and get a feel for it. On top of that I’ll get to see the New Zealand boys and hang around with them and enjoy my experience.

I’m keen to get a feel for it. This is my break time, but I know I’ve got a lot to learn and what better time than coming over to Dubai and seeing the boys do their thing live and up close.

After four straight World Sevens Series titles, the All Blacks Sevens lost their crown to Fiji last year. How hungry will they be?

I’m pretty sure they’ll be very hungry. But in saying that it’s probably not my place to comment. I’ve not been involved with the sevens before. 

I don’t really know too much about it. All I know is that back home in New Zealand, and I’m sure all around the world, a few of these guys are legends. 

So it sounds like you could be making a foray into sevens ahead of it’s debut at the 2016 Olympic Games?

It’s pretty humbling to have someone such as Tietjs expressing a bit of interest in myself and obviously the big thing at the end of it is to try and make the Olympics. 

Growing up as a sportsman there’s nothing bigger than the Olympics, so when that opportunity arose there was no way I wasn’t going to chuck my hat in the ring. It’s a lot of hard work but I’m really excited. 

I just see it as a massive challenge. It’s quite nerve-wracking and scary to be frank. It gets the juices going and I’m really excited about it. 

You started out playing rugby league, then went to union and then took up boxing, so you clearly like a challenge?

Yeah, it keeps the juices flowing. I think when you’re playing at a higher level there’s not a lot of difference between most players.

I believe you have to have that drive, that hunger which gives you an edge. That mental hunger and passion. You have to put yourself in those types of situations where you can feel that. It’s going to make you want to train and do extra and stretch 
yourself. 

I know to be a good sevens player, from talking to Tietjs and other boys that have gone down that path, you need all those attributes, and that’s not even talking about the playing side of things. I definitely have my work cut out but I’m definitely excited and keen to get started.  

What would it mean to you to represent your country at the Olympics?

It would be massive. I didn’t play rugby league until I was eight or nine. I’ve always loved league and loved watching the All Blacks, but one thing I can honestly say is that the Olympics stands out. 

You grow up watching the Kiwis and the All blacks, the Eric Rush’s, the Waisale Serevi’s, the Lomu’s, you remember that, but you always know when the Olympics are on the world stands still. To have the opportunity to put my hat in the ring to achieve something like that is definitely the pinnacle.

You were part of the All Blacks side to win the Rugby World Cup a month ago, but then the country and the game lost one of the all-time greats when Jonah Lomu died. What are your thoughts on him?

To be honest I didn’t really know Jonah that well. I met him about three times, but the one thing I can say is that he embodied that Polynesian spirit. He was truly the first global rugby superstar. For the boys back home growing up it made us proud to say we were Islanders. 

He was the first star but he really was proud of his Islander heritage. He was proud to be a New Zealander but also proud of his Tongan heritage. Islanders seeing that, it was inspiring. He was a generous, humble character. He definitely embodied that Islander spirit.

Did you watch him growing up and think that’s the type of player I want to be?
I think most young people, just people in general, saw what he did on the field and thought that was amazing. It was a special era. 

At Test level he was running past people like they were little kids. We will never see that again. 

You will never see a 6ft 5in, 125kg guy that can run the 100 metres in 10 seconds. A guy like that making it look like men playing kids, in the professional era, I can honestly say you’ll never see anything like that ever again. He was a special man

What was it like being part of an All Blacks side to become the first country to retain the World Cup?

I don’t think it really settled in until we got home just how special it was. Not only was it a special feeling but it had never been achieved before. 

No New Zealand team had won a World Cup in the northern hemisphere. No team had won back-to-back World Cups, so that was a feat in itself and it was just amazing to be part of that. From an individual point of view I was just glad to play some of the best rugby that I’ve ever played on that stage, I was really happy with that.

You made headlines after the final too for giving away your medal to a young boy who came on to the pitch. It was a touching moment. Can you explain why you did that?

It just happened. It was raw. He just jumped in front of me and I just did what I thought was right. It was how I was raised. 
I kind of felt for the young fella, I really did. To be honest having the medal doesn’t really signify that I’m a world champion. 

I know what I achieved and what I accomplished both as a team and as an individual and I don’t need a medal to signify that. 

I’ll have the memories with my team-mates. When I saw the kid I thought I’d get him back to his parents and I knew when I gave him that medal he’d cherish it for life. 

He’d be able to tell his kids, his grandkids. I knew it wouldn’t just make his night, he’ll hold that memory forever. 

I can honestly say that feeling and knowing that is better than having a medal hanging on my wall, walking past it and thinking ‘oh yeah, I won that at the World Cup’.

For more information on the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens and to buy tickets, please visit www.dubairugby7s.com.

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Dubai Exiles chief Jacques Benade pays tribute to Jonah Lomu

Matt Jones 23/11/2015
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Pioneer: Benade says Lomu was the first true professional on and off the pitch.

One of the most iconic images from Jonah Lomu’s memorable career is the great man trampling over Mike Catt as the England full-back desperately tried to stop him from scoring a try in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Of course it didn’t work, Lomu steamrollered Catt to score one of four tries as the All Blacks beat the Red Rose 45-29 to book a place in the final against tournament hosts South Africa.

While many of us were just glad at the time we weren’t Mike Catt or that we didn’t ever have to face the paralysing fear of coming up against one of rugby’s greatest, Jacques Benade knows exactly how Catt feels.

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The South African, who took over as Dubai Exiles director of rugby in the summer, was a talented fly-half who played top flight rugby in his homeland and abroad.

He won caps for and captained the Emerging Springboks in the mid-90s and was unlucky not to win full Springbok honours competing against the likes of Joel Stransky, Jannie de Beer and Henry Honiball for the number 10 job.

He enjoyed a distinguished career for the Sharks in Super 12 (now Super Rugby) where he played against Lomu on several occasions.

“I understand exactly what went through Mike Catt’s head when Lomu ran at him and over him at the world Cup in South Africa,” said Benade.

“Playing for the Sharks in Super 12 in New Zealand one game, we all knew Jonah was playing against us. We also knew that he would take the ball off the scrum-half from a line-out and he would run straight at me. 

“We worked during the week on how we would counter that and also what we needed to do to close the space down so that we could make the tackle before he started running with the ball. 

“Everything went well until 10 minutes into the second half. There was a line-out and Jonah was coming off his wing to take the pass from the scrum-half. 

“I grabbed one leg, Gary Teichmann, our Number 8 and also the Springbok captain, grabbed the other leg and Wayne FyVie, our other back row player, jumped on his back and we eventually got him down 10 metres later – although we lost the game and Lomu still scored two tries.”

Despite the nightmare of facing him on the pitch, Benade has nothing but fond memories of, and kind words for, one of the finest players ever to step onto a rugby field.

“I’m just fortunate to have played against and met Jonah,” said Benade.

“After that game Lomu was a true gentleman, signing photographs and talking to all his fans outside the changing room. 

“He definitely was the first true professional on and off the pitch and every player respected him, not only as a player, but also as an 
ambassador for rugby. 

“With him there on the wing the game changed so much and the wingers started to play a massive role in how a team attack in a game. Big, strong, quick and physical wingers was the answer and phase play really started to happen. 

“Away was the day that you only pass to your wing with a definite overlap. Teams started using them as key players in how they wanted to break down the opposition defence. What a true gentleman and the rugby world will miss him.”

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