If this festive period taught me anything, it was that mothers deserve as much respect as it is possible to muster. It is not, as you might expect, due to the demands of satisfying and caring for a new baby, but for cooking Christmas dinner. I created the traditional feast this year and good Lord, it was an ordeal. I had, until this point, been under the impression that a first-class game of rugby was the ultimate combination of preparation, timing and concentration. It now slips into second place. OK, so there is the odd Dad that does the graft at Christmas time, but most of them only do it once. I sincerely hope to fall into that category.
These days, you see, we rugby players do not get much time to sit back and enjoy what is supposed to be a relaxing, gluttonous and generally unconscious time of year. Thoughts of impending matches over the next day or two are difficult to banish from one's mind as the usual array of meats, sauces and goose fat potatoes are being offered round. "Are you allowed Christmas pudding?" asked my wife. This is one of the only times when being a big lump by profession counts in one's favour. "You don't get a body like this skipping puddings. Whack it on there," came the reply. I worked on the basis of some old-school thinking: don't eat too much tomorrow and run a bit harder at training and all will be back to normal. We managed to beat Gloucester in the West Country derby so I guess it is difficult to contest my logic.
Christmas used to be very different. All my mates and I used to pile down to the local pub, drink too much, bolt a festive kebab and freeze while waiting for the seemingly non-existent, triple-price taxi. The big day would begin with a hangover, develop into an eating competition and end in a heap on the sofa while mum prepared yet more turkey sandwiches and coffee. As a rugby player, the opportunity to relax with family and close friends is a welcome one but, really, this relaxation can never be total. In truth it is a time of restraint and opting out. Champagne, anybody? Better not. I'll have some more water, I think. It is Christmas, after all.
Olly Barkley arrived on crutches just as the military operation that was lunch had been put to Defcon One – with the in-laws prowling, nuclear attack was imminent. Seeing as he had some minor surgery recently, crutches might have been expected accessories of his but I could have sworn I had walked with him the day before and no clinking supports were to be seen. That boy will do anything to avoid helping, and this is meant to be the season of goodwill. Despite currently being sidelined by an annoying, niggling leg injury, Olly's Christmas was more about recovery than outright fun. He allowed himself some pudding too (far more risky for a man with a six-pack to maintain – not an issue for me) but stayed away from all the tastiest drinks and cakes.
So, we watched on as others gorged themselves on all manner of ill- advised delights with only our new cameras, books and slippers for comfort. It was when the grazing herds reached the lounge and crumpled into armchairs, overcome with bloating and visibly regretting their overindulgence, that the benefits of our apparent professionalism were felt.
Two days later, we ran out on to The Rec feeling fresh, nimble and ready for battle after a Christmas full of every enjoyment bar the calories. And when the final whistle went and the job had been done, the sacrifice seemed absolutely worth it. The New Year was celebrated in similar fashion; while millions around the world were sloshing champers and making resolutions, we were all having a nice cup of Earl Grey then making tracks to Leeds. How appropriate.Reuse content