Are you going to be playing against the All Blacks, darling?" my wife asked me on Monday. "Unlikely, I'm afraid," I replied, a bit sulkily. "Right then, get yourself back to Bath to have this baby." Standard post-training phone call from the missus.
In a strange way, though, it went some way toward summing up another rather unusual week in the life of this normally typical rugby player. It began with the Sunday evening journey to Pennyhill Park Hotel to join the England team for training. The day went smoothly enough, until the phone rang.
Now call me a metrosexual but the above quoted request from my wife put the shivers up me somewhat and led me to believe the process had begun and I needed to hit the M4 sharpish. Not so. Unbeknown to me, they can now get the baby out – or induce – whenever they seem to feel like it. And they felt like it.
"Bit early, sweetheart," I said, trying to sound casual in front of my room-mate, Duncan Bell, but he sensed the terror a mile off.
Tuesday was an odd day; having to concentrate on a session so important for England while knowing, the whole time, that life was about to change forever. Yes it is true, rugby players' minds can, in extreme circumstances, be home to more than one basic thought. When, after training, I returned to quickly shower and hit the road, I discovered 18 text messages waiting for me. It seemed news had broken of my England "call-up". The messages ranged from "Well done, Flatters" from my school rugby coach to "Good God, they must be desperate for bodies" from Paul Sampson, my old Bath and England team-mate and part-time comedian. I decided to save time by sending a group reply: "Thanks for the wishes but I am already on the motorway home having been released. Read the whole article next time."
So Wednesday was the day and, so far as I knew, all I had to do was turn up, drink cheap coffee, hold hands and pose for photos at the end. However, these things seem to have a way of dragging on a bit and I found myself having to call our team manager at Bath, Dave Guyan, and tell him I might not make it to training on Thursday. "Just as long as you are on the team bus come Friday, mate, that's all that counts," said Big Dave. "You're starting against Worcester."
For once, rugby could not have been further from my mind. Some things seem to grab the attention more than others and childbirth is one of them. So I allowed all thought of Friday's game to bounce back into the air and refocused on the tormented figure on the bed in front of me. Then the midwife sent me home. "Can't have strange men wandering the wards at night," she said. When I asked her if she really thought I looked strange she popped back, "no, but you look like if you decided to get strange our security guards couldn't stop you". Size-ist, these medical types.
It was not until Thursday evening, with me not having slept since Tuesday, that the little lady (we are concealing her name to safeguard her privacy like Michael Jackson did) arrived. Then I was sent home again. I was starting to get offended by my repeated expulsion. Hours of brown-nosing had clearly got me nowhere and home I traipsed to look at the ceilings for another eight hours. I chose to kill the time by sending out "The Text". Most replies were gushing and congratulatory but Bath coach Steve Meehan's was different: "Good times. Now get some sleep." I got none.
Friday brought the elation of bringing home the newest family member to meet the dogs and be generally fussed over by her grandparents (she was fast asleep all the while, very smug). Having made everyone a cup of tea, it was off to the Rec and on the team bus bound for the West Midlands. Somehow I enjoyed the match, which ended up a deeply frustrating draw. Beats losing, but only just.
At times I think I was like a Royal Marine on exercise, operating on adrenalin and knowledge accrued over the years. In the end the lack of rest and fluids caught up with me and I spent the last 10 minutes watching from the bench, tending to my cramping calves and gradually drifting off. Still, the light at the end of this violent, sleep-deprived, caffeine-fuelled tunnel was the most wonderful gift imaginable waiting at home. The motivation provided by this light proved more than enough to see me through.
As far as I can see, the only thing going for the Friday night rugby match is the weekend it frees up. For me, rugby is a game for Saturday afternoons – all these Fridays and Sundays feel altogether too modern and new-fangled. But this time the fixture organisers (accountants, I think, is their official title) are forgiven. Two days of tea and cuddles (please do not tell any other rugby player I just said that) on the sofa sounds like just the tonic to a week from both heaven and hell.
Yes, a nice sociable run-out at Twickenham would have been wonderful but, even after trekking up and down the M4 again, watching my usually ladylike wife do her best to impersonate The Exorcist, being denied rest at a time when I needed it most and smashing into a 20-stone Tongan for 70 minutes, second prize doesn't seem so bad. This week, and only this week, you can keep the All Blacks.Reuse content