Over the years, I have been unlucky enough to stumble across various directors of rugby who, for some reason known only to themselves, think it is a worthy idea to visit a Royal Marines training camp before the start of the season. These weeks are generally beyond hard and tend to leave the average player physically exhausted, malnourished and mentally drained. The coaches see it as some sort of bonding experience, visiting the very edge of our bodies' limits together, as brothers.
We, however, see it more as a good way to lose hard-earned muscle mass, miss out on valuable sleep and remove any existing enthusiasm and intensity from our minds. Thankfully, Steve Meehan is not a believer. I remember being told to carry a log the size of a Transit van around a field, indefinitely. Our instructor was called, appropriately, "The Beast". "I'll let you know when it's time," he snarled, a 5ft 7in ball of hate with forearms like a Silverback. "Dislocated expectations, lads – keeps you guessing." Thing is, in a game of rugby, we happen to know roughly when we are due to finish.
While I was trying (and failing – I'm blaming Mother Nature) to climb a rope for the eighth time, he asked me: "If I put a shotgun in your gob could you climb it again?" A strange question to be asked on a Tuesday morning and one that, unless I'm missing something, struggles to relate awfully well to rugger. I haven't seen a 12 Bore on the field of play since the game was amateur – too many cameras these days, you see.
The Beast, however, turned out to be one of the nicest, most humble and sensible men I have ever met. He also taught me something which has remained at the forefront of my mind from that moment on. In the bar that night (they got us drunk every evening before waking us at 60-minute intervals to perform gruesome exercises on gravel), I asked him, "Why do you operate like this – with no structure and seemingly no thought, reason or planning?"
"In a battle situation, when it's going off all around us, we receive orders and follow them," he said. "No questions. As soon as you fail to do so, reality strikes and the risks surrounding you become all too apparent."
OK, so we are unlikely to be shot at, but the risks are real. The threat to our health is evident everywhere you look. It seems that the ability to disassociate oneself from the dangers of top-flight rugby is a vital one, perhaps more so even than ability itself. A talented player is nothing without the right mindset. Throughout the years we have been taught to put our heads where they should not reasonably go, to lie in the way of onrushing boots and to deliberately collide with extra large, speeding bodies. It has become what we do.
Reading about Steve Borthwick's horrid eye injury last week made me feel ill. There are some body parts that, no matter the advances made on the medical side of the game, cannot be protected and the eye is one. To have an enormous man stamp his metal stud into your eye (deliberately or otherwise) I think qualifies as worrying. But is it any crazier than what we front-rowers do every week, smashing into other large men and taking all the pressure through our necks and backs? Probably not. It just happens to be our job. The threat of serious injury is a constant one and most, if not all, players are intelligent enough not to ignore it and to pay (handsomely) to insure themselves.
So in a way we have become like the Marines. War heroes we are not but we have, like them, become conditioned to get the job done without a moment's thought for what might happen, to show unblinking commitment every time we take the field. I hate to say it, but perhaps Hell Week taught us something after all.
Please believe we're not all cheats
The Rugby Football Union this week issued a statement claiming that cheating, in all its guises, was not widespread in the Guinness Premiership, and none of us were surprised. What was truly a summer from hell showed that rugby players and management are not perfect. There were regrettable actions taken by individuals that damaged the image of our game. However, to assume that because one club is doing it everyone else must be following suit is hugely naive.
Certainly, what the summer's investigations showed was that there are areas that need tightening up (and I think the punishments handed to Dean Richards and Harlequins, not to mention the departure of four key squad members from Bath, count as tightening up). Uncontested scrums was certainly, despite the predictable League-wide denials, an area where coaches and players alike pushed the rules and developed the odd limp. The introduction of the 23-man squad, with an extra prop, has quickly sorted that.
With all of the random testing going on, drugs are very unlikely to be at issue again, unless someone is either tricked or exceedingly stupid. And blood capsules? Well, I have never even seen one. So Rob Andrew was right – perhaps it is time to draw a line under the summer and move on.
Quins climax left me hitting bottle
Both teams in our match at Quins last night needed a win and for Bath that was a horrific game to lose, given the way it unfolded at the end. All the more for me, as I was substituted and had to watch it from the bench, kicking the nearest water bottle in anger.
I thought our scrum was going well, even when we got pinged a couple of times for engaging early. When Rory Clegg dropped a pass for Quins that he'd never normally drop, we thought we'd got away with it and would win.
But I guess Quins' offence just about shaded our defence and good luck to them. It seems you are almost better off defending these days – there seem to be more ways to lose the ball when you attack and go wide.
Chatting afterwards with Mark Evans, Harlequins' chief executive and an old friend from our Saracens days, he said the situation may have been exciting but the rugby was dull. Maybe, but Mark and Quins will be the happy ones this morning.Reuse content