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From the Front Row: No rest for the World Cup players as club duty calls but they wouldn't have it any other way
Sunday 30 October 2011
Turn on the news and, within a minute or two, you'll hear a story that puts your own little grumbles into perspective. Remind yourself that you're relatively fit and healthy and, suddenly, you might stop whingeing about that sore back and cursing the office's ergonomics team for not arriving sooner with that special chair. Remember how much money you receive every month for doing what you do and your tendency to bemoan the odd managerial decision may dwindle.
However, despite the omnipresence of tangible perspective, I am actually staggered by how little rugby players moan these days. I remember finishing my first season with Saracens in 1999 – yes, your maths are correct and I was 12 years old – and being told we all had six weeks off. Three minutes after that meeting had concluded, George Chuter – my new housemate and general dad – informed me of my selection for a lads' reconnaissance trip to a Greek resort that I now know never to visit again.
So I called my dad, got the money, packed my gumshield and headed for the airport. We returned a week later burned, dehydrated, exhausted and totally ebullient. Rugby was, for the first time in a long time, forgotten. I then flew out on a family holiday and proceeded to deepen my burn, eat lovely food and sleep till noon.
After a month we all felt sufficiently fat that we began hitting the gym in light preparation for pre-season training – but in our own time, which, for the usually strictly directed rugby player, seemed a treat in itself. The next year, though, I was selected on my first international tour. That was where the lazy summers stopped. I haven't had one since.
And although they never, ever seem to moan, I don't know how the current crop of international players do it. As our domestic season drew to a close last May we were given a few weeks to rest, but accompanying that news was a folder full of physical targets to be achieved before presenting ourselves for boot camp.
If this seemed tough, the England boys were straight – like the next day – into World Cup preparation. And I happen to know that it was quite brutal. So they spent roughly five months working like dogs, launched into a series of Test matches and, about 10 days after their tournament ended, were expected to be playing for their clubs. No six weeks off, no lads' trips away, no lazing by the pool.
I know, I know, professional rugby provides a nice little life and, really, there is nothing to complain about. But this isn't a complaint. I recall having coffee with the great Richard Hill as a young Saracen, and him telling me under his breath that he hadn't actually had a break in three years. He never lacked motivation – not for a second – but even I could tell he was a bit dead behind the eyes.
We were only halfway through the club season and he was yawningover lunch, covered in strapping and struggling in the gym. His body was screaming for a break, as was his subconscious. But there was anothercompartment of his psyche that refused to give voice to the demons chattering at him day and night: he had to plough on. That weekend we played Leicester and won. Hilly was almost inhuman that day; it might still be the best performance I have ever witnessed.
At one stage, after a particularly enormous hit on Martin Corry, we – his own team-mates – actually applauded him. Like many of today's top players, Hill was staunch until the end, unblinking and seemingly immune to the otherwise ineluctable forces of physical and mental fatigue.
These guys ask not for pity, they just get up and go to work. This is what it takes, and we wouldn't change it.
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