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

Matt Jones - Editor 16:58 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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