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News & Comment

David Flatman: Mud's good for the skin – and it slows down the gazelles

From the Front Row: For every fairy wearing hair gel there is a behemoth in his element

As a recently retired oaf, I seem to get asked exactly the same question over and over again as I sit in the stands, wander through town or fill up my car with diesel. "D'you miss it?" they ask, in a melancholic, sympathetic tone. I then insert my "Answer rugby question" cassette and deliver the ultimate riposte: "Depends, doesn't it?"

This gets them, every time. They always nod sagely and agree, though none of them must know quite what I am on about, primarily as I don't either. At least this line of questioning offers some variation from the three questions I have been asked daily since I was 18: "What's your schedule, then?" "Do you have to watch what you eat?" "What does go on in that front row then?" My answer, "It varies, doesn't it?", always seemed to cover all three of them, anyway.

I jest, of course. Not about the questions, they are all absolutely real, but about the automated answers. Actually, my approach – taking 15 minutes to answer each one – was more likely to be effective in keeping potential questioners away.

And anyway, as my old boss John Connolly used to tell me every day: "It's when folk stop asking you questions that you know you're gone."

One question that does get asked a lot is what is it like to be a rugby player over the festive period, and this was discussed in these pages last week. But January is a forgotten month in this respect – which is strange, seeing as it is a period no less vital than any other.

Just as Mr Normal is experiencing that post-Christmas comedown, Mr Rugbyman is instructed to carry on regardless. And while this is certainly not a complaint on behalf of the lucky chaps who get to strap up and bash around for a living, I do think it worthy of note that this gloomy, unrelentingly dark, Baltic existence makes rugby an exceedingly tough job at this time of year.

Having said that, it was absolutely my favourite part of the season. Admittedly, I do not enjoy getting up when it is still dark – it just does not feel natural to rise before the sun – but everything else suited me quite nicely.

As a prop forward, I took great pride in never wearing warm tights or silly hats while training. Standing by this strict principle was helped greatly by the fact that I was chubby and therefore always too hot.

The mud, as well as being excellent for my skin, was also a big help in that it made all the quick lads a little bit slower. Of course, it made me slower too, but the pace to which a squelchy pitch slowed the game in general I found most convenient. The Great British winter turned a leggy, athletic game played in the open expanses to one of close-quarter combat, and I always missed it when it was gone.

I would hear our gazelles, replete with dustbin lid-sized headphones, refusing to conduct the seemingly obligatory pre-match walkabout for fear of soiling their gorgeous, sponsored trainers. I would hear them praying for spring to arrive in order that they might skate across the ground once more. And all the while, I would be sitting as far away from the heaters as possible in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, ready to maul in the morass.

Do spare a thought, then, for those less insulated than others at this most extreme time of year, but remember, too, that for every fairy wearing hair gel, there is a behemoth who, while splashing through puddles and splatting in the mud, is in his element. So when folk ask me if I miss it, my answer varies according to the weather. It all depends, doesn't it?