David Flatman: For Queen and country, I will play more often
View from the front row with the Bath & England prop
Sunday 02 May 2010
Even the Queen must find things to moan about. So she has limitless wealth and scurrying helpers to carry out the daily chores, but she still has to shake a thousand hands a week and make small talk with people she will never meet again. I think I might find her job unbearable. If indeed Her Majesty does find it all a terrible bore then I empathise entirely because, you see, I'm a rugby player, and rugby players are allowed to moan about whatever they like.
I finished work at 10 o'clock this morning, having begun at eight. Not too bad, you might observe, and I might agree. Those two hours did include an endurance session that nearly stopped me being alive but still, mustn't grumble. After a lazy breakfast with a few team-mates it was home by noon to mow the lawn before strolling, animals in tow, into the Somerset countryside to catch a few rays.
However, it is not always like this. One day last week I did not arrive home until four in the afternoon. I walked in like an adventurer returning from Everest – weathered, flimsy at the knees, beaten. I was just about to draft an email of complaint to our new owner when I realised that perhaps one eight-hour day every so often is not such a big ask. Especially when three of those hours had been spent drinking coffee with Danny Grewcock in a local café. But woe betide the realist who denies us a good moan.
It is with this knowledge of the rugby player's psyche in mind that I fear the day when an extension of our Guinness Premiership is announced. Fourteen teams? More games? We will all surely perish at the coalface. We are bound to become the miners of the new generation; faceless, worn, unappreciated grafters giving everything to the cause.
However, I ask these naysayers to hold fire. Any expansion to the Premiership would see the LV=Cup dissolve, and there is more than one way to view this; if you view the LV= Cup as a pointless, money-making venture which top clubs use as an excuse to rest their big guns, you might not be sorry to see it go. If, however, you see a cup competition as a vital part of the season, something valuable might be lost.
This cup has never quite achieved FA Cup status in our game. The one big selling point is that its winner gains a place in the Heineken Cup. This would be invaluable were the winners not already in it by way of their league position or provincial status, but the odds are stacked against this as competition winners are usually the best teams.
If the Premiership expanded, the proposed extra league matches would presumably fall on international weekends, so the season would not be any longer. There is the worry that the paying public might feel somewhat short-changed if they go to a big game only to find second-stringers where once there were galacticos. But these weekends will test squad depth like never before and will, ultimately, become extremely important. They will be great for the English game.
More youngsters will be blooded because there will be no other choice. Directors of rugby will have to be cannier with their squads and with financial incentives in place for those clubs fielding the most English-qualified players, the slack is unlikely to be taken up by foreign personnel.
And in the interest of drama, of hope and of pure sporting competition, relegation must stay. Brutal as it is, look at the attention it receives. If our game is to continue to grow we need people to watch it. And leagues are all about having something to play for – without promotion what is a team's ultimate goal? For any team in any division below the top there has to be a pot of gold to aim at.
So we cannot refer to our default complaint of player burnout, as there would be no more games. We cannot castigate further the influx of foreign talent because English qualification is being rewarded with cash.
The only thing we can hope for is that no geographically convenient team gains promotion, then at least we could moan that the extra journeys we were being forced to endure were just too long to bear. Come to think of it, with all this in mind, I think I might start dressing all posh and, by attending the right functions, try to worm my way into the Royal Family. It has to be easier than this rugby and coffee malarkey.
Toulouse pack take Leinster to pieces
It is not, as it turns out, always sunny in the south of France. Conditions were so grotty yesterday in Toulouse that hopes of a flashy, flamboyant Heineken Cup semi-final were drowned before a bootlace was tied. In the warm-up, you could see the backs squinting and flinching as those big nasty raindrops washed the Brylcreem right out.
Toulouse, though, showed why they are Europe's best by simply selecting a different weapon for the job. Yes, David Skrela scored 21 points, but their scrummage won the match. It gave them momentum, got the crowd firing and dealt repeated crushing blows to the Leinster pack. I was as dismayed as half of Ireland to see Cian Healy selected ahead of CJ van der Linde. Healy struggled against Clermont Auvergne in the quarter-final and his substitution after just 30 minutes yesterday proved the decision to have been a costly one.
Benoît Lecouls, the Toulouse tighthead, walks so much and misses so many tackles that he would surely be labelled a dinosaur in England. In France, though, where individuality seems to be encouraged from birth, he is an athlete of huge value. What he offers is such accurate technique and such mind-blowing strength that he seemed able to introduce Healy to his own colon at will. At times – truly – it looked dangerous.
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