War of attrition keeps shooting England in foot

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There's only one thing worse than having an inferiority complex, and that's having two of them. Bath's England forwards Lee Mears, Matt Stevens and Michael Lipman are back at their club after being battered by a Tri-Nations storm at Twickenham in recent weeks. "Being beaten that heavily, in big games when everybody's watching, it's very demoralising," said David Flatman, the Bath loosehead prop. "I've spoken to the boys and they said it's great to have Martin Johnson there, it's just going to take some time to live up to him. Having played with and against him, I can absolutely see that."

Rugby being what it is, the trio had no expectations of sympathetic bear-hugs from Flatman and the likes of Justin Harrison, Danny Grewcock, Stuart Hooper, Andy Beattie and Jonny Fa'amatuainu in Bath's gargantuan and currently prospering pack. "There is no point sulking, not with a Heineken Cup match coming up straightaway," said Flatman, referring to this afternoon's meeting with Glasgow at The Rec. "It was the same when Steve Borthwick and Olly Barkley left Bath in the summer." We will come back to the two Bs – Barkley went to Gloucester and Borthwick to Flatman's old club, Saracens – but what about the national side?

Flatman, 28, won eight caps between 2000 and 2002 and played with Johnson for England against South Africa and Australia before injuries prevented him becoming one of the 40-cap veterans Johnno has been crying out for. He is adamant that the "high attrition rate" of the English season gives New Zealand, the world's top-ranked team, an advantage.

"Their system is designed to produce players with a perfect balance of match sharpness and body hardness, and fitness and strength," Flatman said. "Thirty-five games a year is a lot harder than 20 games, which I'd think is the average for an All Black in Super 14 and Tests. It's a very hard season in England and that's not a cliché: it's brutal, every week.

"If you are talking about quality, as a lot of people seem to be, what does that really come down to? How well you take care of yourself, and whether you're learning and improving. I watch the All Blacks and they look five times as good individually as they did five years ago. And you think 'these guys are really learning, there's a lot being asked of them during the week'."

Flatman is mystified by the club-country trade-off which obliged Johnson to name his elite squad for the season in July, with five changes permitted next month. "I'd give anything to play for England again," he said, "but there was no point them watching me [in the autumn] because I wasn't in the squad." And what about foreign players, with more than a third of Premiership squads being non-English? "That's tricky," Flatman said. "Chris Latham at Worcester has taken the spot of an English full-back but I speak to mates at the club who say he's become everyone's role model in five minutes."

Eddie Jones, Saracens' head coach, said last week that with Cencus Johnston and Cobus Visagie (a Samoan and a South African) in his First XV, the club's England Under-20 prop, Tom Mercey, needed a second-team competition to play in, funded by the RFU. Hmm. The RFU telling clubs what to do with their young players... are you sure, Eddie? "He's got a Batphone to Teletext, hasn't he?" said Flatman. "Bath's young props play for National One clubs every week. And we take great pride in our second team whereas some clubs don't. There seems to be no give without take."

Flatman writes his own newspaper columns and does analysis on Sky Sports. With David Barnes, chairman of the Players' Association, alongside him, the Bath dressing room must be like the courtroom in A Few Good Men. They handled the truth of Barkley and Borthwick departing and are solidly in the top three of the Premiership. "I know why Olly left," he said, "and I know why Borthers said he left, and it was all true: it wasn't based on money, they needed a new challenge. Those guys lived in about five square miles in Bath since leaving school and it was like being in The Truman Show, a massive chunk out of their freedom.

"We have other top players and a rugby team is different from football, which is a lot about the individual. I was at Saracens when they tried to buy a team. I was a kid in a World XV – well, a World 13, with me and Kris Chesney. But Ches was the sort of player you need, in the backbone to a club. Johnno is trying that with England. He knows he needs seven or eight players he can always select, he knows about building that backbone. At Leicester he was vertebra No 1."