Returning Ian Gough shows plenty of fight
NEVER mind comparing Wales's autumn series to scenes from the classic TV series M*A*S*H — Ian Gough is grateful he has managed to dodge a worrying health-related bullet himself.
The Ospreys second row spent two months on the sidelines earlier in the campaign with what he describes as a "minor heart problem".
But after receiving the all-clear from medics, the big second row has returned to first-team action and is in the side to face Toulouse at Stade Ernest Wallon tomorrow afternoon.
"I'm feeling good," said the 36-year-old.
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"I've had a bit of a lay-off, but I've been back for a few weeks and that's nice. The body's been repaired over the past month or so. Now it's a case of tally-ho, off we go.
"Everything's been signed off now. It's all been done methodically with the physios and doctors. The game with the Blues was my third match back and I played 70-odd minutes, which was great."
The issue was a concern at the time, though, particularly in the wake of seeing fellow Wales internationals Rhys Thomas and Lloyd Burns having to pack in playing because of heart-related difficulties.
"Any injury is a worry; any injury is a potential career ender," said Gough.
"You do get worried, but I've had a long career and you learn to take things in your stride a bit more and take the attitude that what will be will be.
"It all got worked out, like any other injury. It was diagnosed, treated and it's been fine."
The hard-working forward's return to good health is timely for the Ospreys, who have been hit by injuries to locks Ian Evans and Alun Wyn Jones, plus Jonathan Thomas.
Since arriving from the Dragons in 2007, Gough has proved consistently reliable.
The man who famously hit 47 rucks for Wales against Italy in 2008, in a game that saw him lose 11lb in body weight, rarely stops grafting in any match, pounding into the breakdown area, shoving powerfully in scrums and hitting hard in the tackle.
His tireless performance against the Blues last time out underlined that the old warhorse still has the appetite for battle.
But once any sportsman hits his mid-30s it is perhaps inevitable thoughts will start to stray to life beyond playing, to the years beyond liniment, fitness testing and limbs that never seem to stop aching.
"I am in the autumn of my career — autumn, winter or whatever," said Gough.
"I have another season left on my contract after this and my body, mind and performance will tell me what to do.
"If in 18 months' time I'm fit and performing well, and my body feels fresh enough to get out of bed, put my socks on in the morning and put my boots on to go, then I'll take all that into account when I make the decision."
Back to the woe of Wales's autumn series, and particularly for the Ospreys, who saw Alun Wyn Jones injured against Argentina, Dan Biggar, Ian Evans and Richard Hibbard crocked against Samoa, and Aaron Jarvis hurt against New Zealand.
"It's been like M*A*S*H," said Gough, a nod to the popular series about the staff of an army hospital battling the odds in the Korean War.
"Every time you watch an autumn Test it seems one of our boys has been going down. You say: 'Aaargh! Not another of the Ospreys boys'.
"But it's part of rugby and you just have to come up with strategies to cope. Off the field, the coaches are doing a pretty good job on that front."
The odds are stacked against the Ospreys in Toulouse, not just because of injuries, but also because they have had a ludicrously condensed preparation time: just two full training sessions. Hardly enough for a friendly with Tonmawr let alone an important Heineken Cup tie against the four-times European champions.
Toulouse have been letting the world know via their website this week how well they have fared against Welsh clubs in Europe over the years. They boast an 81.5 per cent success rate, losing just once at home, to the Scarlets in 2006.
Their consistency since the inception of European rugby has indeed been remarkable — the four wins, complemented by two further appearances in finals and four more in semi-finals.
But at least the Ospreys know what is facing them this weekend.
The time was when Welsh clubs heading abroad would risk returning with their wings not so much clipped as sliced off and with their bruises matched only by the number of points conceded.
"It has improved over the years," said Gough.
"I've won a few times out there, with Wales and the Ospreys. The region beat Bourgoin and we went close in Clermont. The boys are not overawed at the prospect of going to France.
"It's not like the old days at Newport, when you'd go out there and get beaten up and soundly thrashed. It was a really hostile environment, then. But things have changed."
Gough continued: "Toulouse is a tough place to visit, but a lot of the boys have just come off an autumn series playing against some of the best sides in the world, so they will be at that level.
"It's up to the rest of us to get up to them.
"What can you say about Toulouse as a side? They have been there or thereabouts for as long as I have been playing professional rugby.They have been top dogs, up there with the Leicesters, the Munsters and other teams you want to play and test yourself against. What better way to test yourself than to come up against Toulouse in their stadium, in front of around 20,000 people. It's a great place to play. The crowds are great. I love playing in France.
"We have to go there and try to produce an 80-minute performance rather than a 72-minute one like we produced in Leicester."
Van Gough, as he calls himself on Twitter, is back and raring to go.
As good news goes, it's hard to imagine that being topped at the Ospreys this season.