Rugby Union: New faces for 1999: Flatman flat out in the fast lane

Saracens' 6ft, 17 stone teenager is proving a rugby union revelation.
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The Independent Online
MARK EVANS might have spent his only free Saturday of last season queuing for a tub of supermarket taramasalata or playing frisbee with the kids. "It would have earned me a few brownie points, that's for sure," he admits. But Evans did no such thing. Saracens' director of rugby and talent-spotter supreme donned his anorak and headed for a Dulwich College school match instead. "Call me a sad bastard, but that afternoon on the touchline got me David Flatman. And that, let me tell you, was a major result."

Flatman turned 19 yesterday. He is not on a full-time contract at Vicarage Road, he can still count his Premiership outings on the fingers of one hand and he knows that when Roberto Grau, the Pampas Bull, returns from injury, he will automatically relinquish his status as Sarries' number one No 1. He is unlikely to spend much time in the shadows, however, for he is almost certainly the most exciting front-row prospect to emerge from the south-east since Jason Leonard outgrew his Barking homestead and headed for the bright lights of the capital a decade or more ago.

"Funnily enough, it wasn't David I went to see that day," says Evans. "We'd heard very good reports of one of his schoolmates, hence my visit. But it didn't take long to identify the real class act and, happily for us, he signed as an associate professional on his 18th birthday."

Flatman, who hails from Maidstone, remembers the occasion every bit as vividly. "Our opponents were pretty weak at the set-piece and I grabbed a couple of lucky tries into the bargain, so I must have looked quite good," he laughs. "When the offer came to join Saracens, I snatched their hands off. I'm not on big money or anything like that, but just at the moment, I couldn't care less. I'd happily do this for nothing."

At 6ft and 17 stones, Flatman is still growing; according to Evans he is "as strong as an ox" and will be a "real handful when he fills right out".

But, on the evidence of his early contests with three English international tight-heads - Rob Hardwick of London Irish, Victor Ubogu of Bath and Will Green of Wasps - he is already there or thereabouts in the physical department. "As with any teenager, there are big areas for improvement," points out Evans. "He needs to improve aerobically and work on his ball skills. But he's a listener - he's milking Bobby Grau for every last drop of information - and his attitude is exemplary. As for raw material, it's coming out of his ears."

For all his tender years, Flatman already bears the stamp of a career prop; after all, he first supped from the beer mug of front-row troglodysm at the age of seven. He made the England Schools team a year early in 1996 and anchored them not only to an international Grand Slam, but to a fine victory over Australia in Australia. A Triple Crown followed last season, plus an England Colts cap against Argentina.

Then, last month, came the sweetest moment yet: a triumphant Under-21 appearance against South Africa at Twickenham. "Quite something, that one," he says. "We had a side full of good players and everyone performed. A convincing win against any Springbok team is worth celebrating.

"Fortunately, there are enough good people at Saracens, people who have been there and done it at the highest level, to ensure that I keep my feet firmly on the ground and stay on the straight and narrow. Every Premiership game I've played has been a big learning experience, especially the one at Wasps earlier this month. While I have no doubt whatsoever that our own Paul Wallace is the best tight-head in the league, I think Will Green is the best Englishman in his position. He made me work really hard that night; he mixed things up, tried a few tricks and made sure that no two scrums were the same. When I came off, I knew I'd been in a match. Experience like that is incredibly valuable."

It is ironic that Evans, a former deputy headmaster, should have been instrumental in steering Flatman away from academia, in the august shape of Durham University, and into the burgeoning academy known as Saracens. Still, there is enough of the teacher left in Evans to ensure that the youngster makes the best of himself. "We like to look after our prospects here and part of that process is keeping them on the level," he explains. "I've seen too many young forwards, especially props, pay a heavy price for allowing themselves to be pushed too far, too soon. We don't intend to make that mistake with David, or anyone else for that matter.

"He is one hell of a talent, though. I don't want to get too excited about him because, if you go over the top about an 18 year old, the consequences can be grim for everyone concerned. But, that said, it's difficult not to get excited about someone of his age playing as he has done over the last four weeks."