It is that time of year again. A time to relax, appreciate all that we have and reflect on the events that led us to this point of festive bliss. At Christmas – and only at Christmas – do we seem able to recall the year's less pleasant periods and, instead of rueing them, dismiss them with a roll of the eyeballs and wash them away with another swig of mulled wine. It is a time to remember and forgive.
One creature, however, that I seem to be having great difficulty forgiving is the stork who, 37 years ago, delivered a tightly packed bundle to the door of two joyous new parents. In this bundle – already filthy with mud and smelling of dog biscuits – was wrapped David Barnes. Science tells us we are all unique but this cuddly tot, despite never actually developing the full head of hair for which his parents prayed, grew to become perhaps English rugby's most unique character.
Paradoxically he is both a coach's dream and, in the same breath, his worst nightmare. If there were a "Ridiculous Behaviour" award, it would be named after him. Just last week I was driving (or rather, wheel-spinning – it was -7C) up the steep hill to the gym when I passed a crazy person, kitted out head to toe in high-end alpine mountaineering gear and carrying what looked like a military rucksack, attempting to run up. As my expensive traction control system failed in true British style, the madman actually overtook me. It was Barnesy. When the team doctor later did his daily round of check-ups he asked Barnes how he was. "Not too bad, Doc," he said, "got this bloody chesty cough that just won't clear, though." I wonder why.
Were there a prize for worst trainer of the year, he would get that too. And worst dress sense. And worst banter. But somehow rugby not only accepts him, it embraces him. Maybe that's why we love the sport, or maybe we just want him around to boost our own self-esteem. Either way, every club should have one.
Every club should have a Chris Ashton, too. Not just because he is a sensational rugby player, but because no matter what the situation he is smiling. On the summer tour I began playing a game entitled: "Can I upset Ashy?" He, of course, didn't know I was playing it and that was the point. I would nick his freshly made brew from the table when he looked away, I would remove half of his steak from his plate as he blinked, but nothing, nothing could stop this bloke enjoying himself. Or so I thought.
It was towards the end of the trip, when the team-room table tennis matches had reached near-Test match intensity, that I saw him crack. Ben Foden called him a cheat and no one, it seems, is allowed to call Ashy a cheat. It was at this moment that I witnessed his full rage; he switched to Defcon One. Basically, he went all red and swore a lot. Then, as if by magic, he was placated by Mark Cueto suggesting they play a "let". Life on the edge, rugby style.
It is perhaps my "Nice Guy of the Year" award that might shock the most. Courtney Lawes might just be the loveliest rugby bloke knocking around these days. All you see as spectators are the enormous hits, the at-times combustible temper and the frankly bellicose tattoos. He looks like a nasty piece of work who could surely earn a decent crust working the doors of Northampton's roughest nightspots. The thing with Lawes, though, is that he is only this animal on Saturday afternoons. Otherwise he is softly spoken, humble and interested in others. Though you wouldn't have guessed this as he hit me about 15 minutes late the last time we played.
Normally, with tradition in mind, I would have reacted with a venomous but ill-placed haymaker but before I had time to swing he was helping me up. "Hiya, Flats, there you go, mate," he said softly. So annoying, that; you can't even hate him for hurting you.
There are times in the modern game when the stakes are so high and the pressure so potent that something has to give. With all the cameras around these days the notion of a nice social brawl to calm the nerves has been all but banished, so a nano-second of psychological liberation is now harder to come by as kick-off approaches. Earlier this season we had a French referee for a Heineken Cup match and little did he know, he would be our much-craved release valve personified.
I'll spare his name, of course, but honestly, it was like a scene from The Pink Panther. I had to double-check that Inspector Clouseau hadn't just walked in. "Good moaning," he began, "I wan' to see studs, all zee studs." "There's one right here," quipped a semi-naked Michael Claassens, and the laughter began. Then, as is customary, he brought together the front row to set out his ground rules for the engagement process: "I wan' croche, tooche, pawse, ongarge!" And with that we were in stitches.
Disrespectful? Yes, probably, but we couldn't help it. Naturally it was back to task minutes later but I would like to thank said referee for the 60 seconds of hilarity he provided when we needed it most.
Time waits for no man, nor does it wait for sport. Rugby's landscape changes every year and for those of us still at the coalface these changes are tangible. One thing that remains, though, is that at the heart of our sport must exist the vast assemblage of characters that make the changing room so rich an environment. We need the village idiots (see paragraph two), we need the young at heart and we need the psychos.
Professionals might booze a bit less and avoid white bread when the coach is watching but, in essence, the game remains as wonderful as ever, and this is an award we can all share.