David Flatman: England come calling... but then so do Bath

View From the Front Row: Club has to come before country after unexpected joy of fantastic training session with national squad
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Surprisingly, not all of my friends at school finished their A-Levels and went on to careers in professional sport. Most of them continued to one university or another before climbing into ill-fitting suits and heading into glass-walled offices equipped with extra-strength air conditioning, a thousand computers and no clocks, where they remain to this day. These are the people, the drones I call mates, who delight in ribbing me via text messages from the country's financial coalface about the paltry number of hours we rugby types actually have to spend at the "office".

While my normal response is to rub it in by sending them pictures of me in front of the television drinking Earl Grey or of the rural setting in which my dogs and I find ourselves strolling, this week I have no comeback whatsoever. I concede, when compared to the average week on the road of, say, a sales rep, my mileage seems nothing about which to write home, but I am a sportsman and we are used to training hard for short periods then resting for long ones.

After a somewhat rough start to the season a few of the more used and grizzled members of the first-team squad at Bath received what we call The Million Dollar Phone Call. This is a call to inform us that we are to be given two weeks off for the Anglo-Welsh Cup games and will not need to return until the Guinness Premiership resumes. So, let me translate this for you: "You will spend the first week at the club getting flogged but will not have to play the match on Saturday and the second week will be your own. But keep your phone on."

So it was with unbridled glee that I booked a week at a lovely barn in Cornwall with my very pregnant wife and two grateful hounds. We arrived to glorious sunshine and set out for the beach with the camera at the ready. On the beach we happened to bump into Carl Hogg, Gloucester's forwards coach, and we both agreed that there are few better places to spend one's spare time.

That was when the phone rang. Now, not many calls make you pleased to cut a holiday short after less than 24 hours but one from the England camp saying "Get here now" did the trick. It was back in the car, dump the extended family off in Bath and hack up the motorway to Surrey. Radio 2 and some vile petrol-station coffee kept me going for the six-hour trip, that and the thought of fellow prop Duncan Bell waiting for me in bed, of course.

Wednesday's training was hard and fantastic, the atmosphere one of pure positivity and professionalism, and I couldn't wait to get back there on Friday then to Twickenham yesterday to warm up with the team in case anyone rolled an ankle. But straight after the session it was back down the M4 to Bath to take care of the Mrs (she's milking it a bit if you ask me) and walk the animals in the pouring rain. That was when the phone rang again. "Flats, you'll be needed this weekend at The Rec. Sorry mate, no Twickers for you," said our team manager. They say good news travels fast, and within three minutes Bath hooker Lee Mears was on the phone: "How's the holiday, mate?"

My consolation was that I got to play for Bath at The Rec and, having missed one or two games over the years for one reason or another, this still excites me. I love it and now require it, in truth, to make any week of my life feel complete. God knows what I will do after rugby. Perhaps I will get my HGV licence, start frequenting greasy-spoon cafes and stick to what I do best. All I need now are some furry dice.

Result is all that counts for Johnno

England will, no doubt, be on the receiving end of an old-fashioned shoeing at the hands of the press today. Despite winning, there will be intelligent and damning critiques rolling in from all corners of the world. One thing that might not be mentioned so readily, I suspect, is Argentina's performance. It was a horrid game with little in the way of flamboyant rugby but how much of that was the visitors' fault?

There were amateurs and debutants in the Pumas side but going into a match of this magnitude with such a weakened team dissolves external pressure that might otherwise weigh heavy. Nobody expected them to win. Over the years they have created a culture surrounding Argentinian rugby that says: "If you wear this shirt, you play with your heart first. You play as if you would die before conceding an inch." Yesterday they fought and tackled as if their existence depended on it, their appetite for work a lesson for all nations.

So it may feel like the world is closing in for the England team this week but, as an Englishman, I keep reminding myself that, despite the quality of the opposition (Roncero, Ledesma, Albacete and Lobbe being the world's best in their respective positions), despite the weather being vile and despite having an injury list longer than ever before, we won. Performance first? Not in my book.

Comments