x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Drop goals etched in the memory

There was a time when the words "That Drop Goal" conjured a rather different image in the minds of British rugby fans than that of Jonny Wilkinson's effort to break Australian hearts at the 2003 World Cup final.

There was a time when the words "That Drop Goal" conjured a rather different image in the minds of British rugby fans than that of Jonny Wilkinson's effort to break Australian hearts at the 2003 World Cup final. Six years earlier, Wilkinson's erstwhile England teammate and predecessor as rugby 'Golden Boy', Jeremy Guscott, landed the goal which gave the British and Irish Lions a rare series win in South Africa.

Pre-Sydney 2003, it had been the most famous half-volley from the boot of an English rugby player. The series had proved to be the pinnacle for a number of Lions players, and joy abounded amongst those clad in red on that night in Durban. For instance, forward Lawrence Dallaglio's coruscating career was book-ended by winning World Cups in both sevens and 15s, yet he still ranks that 1997 Lions triumph as his zenith.

Already a legend in rugby league before returning to the code in which he started, John Bentley's star only shone relatively briefly in union. He was never more luminous than on the tour of South Africa, when bone-crunching tackles, powerful running, and, most saliently, a starring role in the fly on the wall video Living With the Lions cemented his place in touring lore. Despite all he achieved in the 13-man game and a preference for that code, he deems the 1997 Lions tour "without a doubt, the best rugby I ever played".

He says his memories are tinged with one minor regret, however: the identity of the match-winner. "Why bloody Guscott?" is his regular refrain. "The Welsh, Scots and Irish seemed to like me, and I knew a lot of the English lads from before," recalled Bentley, 42, whose four caps on the wing for England were separated by a decade, and a career in rugby league. "The one guy I didn't know was Jeremy Guscott. I had already formed an opinion of him, and it wasn't a positive one. I thought he was a little bit aloof and arrogant."

His perception was founded on Guscott's decision to opt out of two exhibition matches for his Bath club side against rugby league trailblazers Wigan, which were played to mark the dawn of professionalism. "Importantly for me, when the curtain dropped on professionalism in union, he didn't play in those landmark games, when Wigan played against Bath at Maine Road, Manchester, and then at Twickenham," added Bentley. "He didn't play in either of them - and I thought he was soft.

"When I travelled down I asked a teammate about him, and he said, 'If he respects you, you will get on very well'. "He turned to me and said, 'He will respect you'. I said to him, 'If he doesn't respect me by the end of the first week I will have gained his respect, because I will pick him as a training partner, and I will kick s*** out of him'. The second we met we got on like a house on fire." pradley@thenational.ae