During the 1998 "Tour of Hell", the most catastrophically divisive overseas adventure of the Clive Woodward era, the England coach was deeply underwhelmed by Duncan Bell's potential as an international front-row forward. "I don't suppose Clive said more than two words to me," the 19st prop recalled this week. "And no, I can't remember what they were." But he has not forgotten two other words, published in a rugby magazine on his return. "They printed an end-of-trip report on each player," he continued. "Under my name, it said: 'Duncan who?' I couldn't help taking it personally."
Five and a half years down the road - a strangely circuitous stretch of sporting highway that has led Bell back to Bath, where he started playing as a nine-year-old, after spells as an increasingly anonymous professional replacement at Sale and an unlikely folk hero in the heart of the Welsh valleys - the vocabulary has changed, both in volume and tone. Nowadays, he is not dismissed by anyone, least of all the coaching team at the Recreation Ground.
One hard-nosed Australian, John Connolly, describes him as "highly influential"; another, the World Cup-winning Wallaby hooker Michael Foley, calls him "a revelation". These are the men selecting Bell ahead of Matt Stevens, who was good enough to start for England against the New Zealand Barbarians a fortnight ago but is not yet good enough to see off his club rival. "Matt is a remarkable talent - the future of this club and, quite possibly, the future of the England Test team too," Bell said generously, happy in the knowledge that he himself is the present.
Who can say how long this present will last? At 29 - a thoroughly deceptive 29, given his choirboy features and his penchant for racing around the field like a 17-year-old - Bell has at least three good years left inside his substantial frame, which is constructed along the same lines as the Mendip Hills.
Together with his fellow newcomers, David Flatman and Isaac Fea'unati, he has turned the Bath pack from an over-polite group of perfume salesmen into a thoroughly unpleasant gang of muck-spreaders. Everyone knew Flatman was a high-class prop, and that Fea'unati would carry the ball miles if he got himself both fit and interested. Bell's contribution, on the other hand, has been above and beyond public expectation, and is one of the principal factors behind Bath's rise to the top of the Premiership.
Born in Norfolk, Bell was raised in the small village of Hawkesbury Upton, on the Gloucestershire-Wiltshire border. He played little rugby at his local comprehensive, but spent his Sundays rough-and-tumbling with his mates at the Rec and was good enough to catch the eye of the England Under-16s selectors, who picked him as a second row. That won him a place at Colston's School in Bristol, the strongest union school in the country, and he was soon propping for the national age groups. Harlequins made a move for him when he took up a college place in London, but he did not connect with the smoked salmon set at the Stoop and failed to secure one of the new professional contracts. By the summer of 1996, he was looking for a proper job.
"That was when luck or fate or whatever you want to call it kicked in for the first time," he said. "One of the coaches at Quins had just started renting a house from a bloke who turned out to be the commercial manager at Ebbw Vale, who happened to be looking for a prop. My name cropped up, and off I went. It was a complete fluke, and a very useful one. I had just about resigned myself to playing social rugby, social cricket and joining the rat race."
Bell received the traditional Welsh welcome in the early training sessions - "There were," he admits, "a few bust-ups along the way" - but he was more than happy with his terms of employment. "They paid me £100 a game and shelled out for my accommodation, a ground-floor flat near the ground. I was playing at all the big Welsh grounds - Stradey, the Arms Park, St Helen's - and after my experience at Quins, I was thinking that maybe I wasn't so bad after all. I was loving it so much, I signed a new contract; I might even have qualified for Wales and chased a cap. But when my girlfriend came to stay and saw the flat, that was that. I suppose it was a bit on the bleak side."
Advised by his father to look for a Premiership deal in England, Bell signed on with an agent and moved to Sale, coached by John Mitchell, the former All Black No 8. Mitchell was also Woodward's second-in-command, and when more than 20 senior players pulled out of the ill-starred tour of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in 1998, Bell was invited to join the cannon fodder. He played 40 miserable minutes against a hot New Zealand Academy team containing the likes of Doug Howlett and Reuben Thorne, before hurting a shoulder joint in training and spending the rest of the trip feeling like a hanger-on.
"God, what a nightmare," he said. "It was a totally depressing experience, and I wasn't alone in feeling that way. We'd taken some heavy beatings and Mitch, thinking he'd make us suffer in training, came up with this great idea of people smashing into each other from 25 metres in a two-metre channel. I was up against Steve Ojomoh, who was the last person on earth anyone would want to run at with nowhere to go. I injured myself, inevitably. I should have gone home, but it was my first tour and I didn't want to dip out. There was a lot of stress and strain, though, and I don't think it did many of us much good. Mitch was really hard on me during those few weeks - so hard, he apologised to me afterwards."
Once again, the Welsh came to the rescue. Bell had spent the vast majority of a desultory season on the Sale bench - "It went completely tits-up there; they politely told me that the club wanted to sign some world-class props and that I wouldn't be featuring" - when the television cameras arrived for a fixture against Wasps. "I got on with a couple of minutes left, and Richie Collins was one of the people who happened to turn on his set at the right moment." Collins was heavily involved with Pontypridd, who were short of a front-row forward. Once again, Bell headed for the Valleys.
"I suppose the penny dropped with Richie because of my time at Ebbw Vale. Whatever the reason, I adored playing for Ponty. There were some really good young forwards there and the pack grew together. The supporters must be the best in the world - they used to sing 'Duncan is a Welshman' from the terraces - and we enjoyed a good deal of success. My game changed, too. I had never been known as a heavy scrummager, but as a big boy with decent hands who could get around the field and smash the ball up through the middle. At Ponty, the coaches worked on my tight game. I didn't notice much difference until I saw a tape of one of our matches and heard Eddie Butler, the commentator, say 'There's Bell, the strong-scrummaging Englishman'. I thought to myself, 'Bloody hell, that's a new one'."
Now an all-purpose prop, rather than a Fancy Dan, Bell was an obvious target for a Bath side who had struggled badly at the set-pieces for two painful seasons. With the Welsh moving to a regional set-up, he crossed the Severn Bridge once more - this time, he thinks, for good. "This is a fantastic rugby environment, with go-ahead coaches, quality players and supporters who know what they're watching," he said. "Do I still have international ambitions? Not really. While I've always enjoyed club rugby, I've had nothing but grief at representative level. There are more important things in life."
A little over a month ago, during a tough Premiership match at Leicester, Bell discovered one of them. "Martyn Wood had been sent off, so we were down to 14 men - not the best of situations at Welford Road. And when we won in the tightest of games, I heard the old chant of 'Duncan is a Welshman' coming from the crowd. Three blokes in Pontypridd shirts had turned up to watch, and were celebrating our victory like Bath supporters. You can't ask for much more, can you?"Reuse content