Jeremy Guscott scoring a try against Tonga during the 1999 World Cup at Twickenham

Once they have suppressed their eye-rolling exasperation at the RFU’s committee-room machinations of midsummer, England fans can at least approach the imminent World Cup with a chipper (if not too starry-eyed) optimism, writes Frank Keating.

Improvement under Martin Johnson has by no means been spectacular but it’s been comparatively assured, with most of the lillywhites’ traditional strengths to the fore – that is, a competitive front five, belligerent back row, composed pair of half-backs and an enterprising counter-attacking back three of which opponents are ever more wary.

All of which might – okay, with fingers crossed and given favourable southerly winds – add up to some allowably buoyant expectations for England if they hit the ground running in New Zealand. Except, however, for one vital bit of rugby gear that doesn’t look likely to be packed for the journey – that two-man bag of tricks and treats which inhabit the midfield. Has Johnson already decided to stick with the beef? Does he reckon it’s too late now to swap his over-earnest, overpowered HGV tractors in the slow lane?

How long till England rue this dire lack of freshness, wit and invention at centre threequarter? Is Johnson really going to the World Cup intending to perm two from the muscle-bound trio of veteran warrior by-royal-appointment Mike Tindall, greenhorn Shontayne Hape and converted winger Matt Banahan? Honest fellows each, four-square pampas bulls to be sure, but which is the prancing, bright-eyed creative pony? Where’s the rhapsody, or the guile?

Oh, for the visionary breadth and cool nous of Tindall’s 2003 mentor Will Greenwood. And oh, for a rugby reincarnation of England’s one-and-only all-time maestro, the majestic Jeremy Guscott.
Two or three seasons ago, I’d have bet good money on any couple of a sparkling bunch of likely lads filling England’s 2011 midfield – such precocious surnames as Allen, Tait, Geraghty, Hipkiss and Simpson-Daniel, to list but a few. How were they allowed to get away?

Rugby has been blessed with resplendent centres of excellence. Usually they work in pairs, like great opening batsmen (Haynes & Greenidge, Hayden & Langer), or high-street landmarks (Marks & Spencer, Marshall & Snelgrove)… Each generation frames in gold leaf its favourite centre partnerships – traditionally opposites, and all the better for being chalk and cheddar, straightforward and trickster. For example, I reckon the three finest Lions sides, in 1971, ’74 and ’97, were built around the interacting twin qualities – the spark and soundness – of Dawes & Gibson, McGeechan & Milliken, and Gibbs & Guscott.

Quicksilver Scot Jim Renwick was a favourite of mine; so too France’s Jo Maso; Springbok Danie Gerber as well… History hoards other imperishables – from Bleddyn & Dr Jack and Stanley & Robertson, to Horan & Little, D’Arcy and the onliest O’Driscoll. Nor have England been lacking – at school our autograph-books glistened with the stellar signatures of Jeff Butterfield and WPC Davies… and hands up all those who remember the daredevil dash of bonny blonds Spencer & Duckham (before the latter was banished to the wing without a pass), or that exhilarating match-up of power, pace and panache provided by Carling & Guscott, respectively confrontational big-shot commander and insouciant, instinctive natural who could pour through all the gaps with the languid grace and pomp of an emperor.

Oh lordy, if a Guscott was to come again, England would go to New Zealand as nailed-on finalists at the very least.

This article appeared in the August 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.

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