I remember playing against Northampton in 2003 and going into the game with a specific opponent to target. Even as recently as then, "targeting" was a somewhat different concept from the one that exists today. About 20 minutes into the game, said dangerman gave me the perfect chance to introduce myself when he landed at my feet, under a pile of conveniently obstructive men. It was only when he got up and jogged back into position that I realised something had gone wrong. And it was when I saw my Bath team-mate Matt Perry lying asleep on the floor that all became clear.
"Soz, mate," I whispered as the full-back came to. "Hey, no worries pal, that's the game. Good effort, by the way," he replied, huskily. Then, with a shake of the head and a token spray of tepid water to the face (I never know why they do that – hasn't medical science moved on?), Pez made his way back and assumed the rearguard position once more. Never in doubt.
This wasn't an unusual act for the man known locally as The Rock; his fearlessness made him a national hero and in no time he became England's most-capped full-back of all time. He was perhaps most admired for his accuracy and sheer courage under the high ball. When asked, he credits another Bath great, Audley Lumsden, with the teaching of this most difficult of skills. However, the other prerequisite was one that could not be taught: heart. The bloke was simply an inspiration every time he played with us and, in all honesty, we wondered if he could ever be replaced.
The truth is that no player can ever be truly replaced. What sport does is move on quickly in search of the next bright spark. That spark is, in this case, Nick Abendanon. Now, just for the benefit of those who did not see Bath's match against Leicester last week, Nick was smashed more times than I have ever seen anyone smashed in one game before. And what makes it even worse is that the blokes smashing him seemed invariably to be called Tuilagi. When the younger brother, Manu, hit Nick for the first time, the whole game stopped; we expected the grim reaper to appear in his cloak and offer to take him home. But no, Nick popped up right as rain and got on with it. Then again. And again.
In the end, Abendanon was substituted for his own safety. We had underperformed and the game was lost, so to risk such an important player was deemed unnecessary. When he made it to the bench, his condition was probably best described as foggy. He wanted to stay out there, to right the wrongs and to have another crack at them but then he also called me Belly (the ultimate insult; I let it slip on medical grounds), so I think the doctor did the right thing. There was nothing illegal going on out there, just a bunch of massive blokes getting it right in the tackle.
What struck me, though, was just how resilient Nick was in the face of such physical dominance. He did not, for one second, consider bottling a ball carry and opting to kick.
Instead he got up, got his hands back on the ball and managed to break the line more than once. I realise, of course, this is his job and only a game of rugger but ask yourself: how would you react in front of so many people having been hit that hard that many times? "Big boys, eh?" he remarked that evening, when I called to check he was all right. "Remind me to run round them next time, would you?"
The game, as we know it, is changing by the week and, with it, so are the players. Huge men now fill jerseys of all numbers and their physical prowess would, just a decade or so ago, have seemed unachievable. But thankfully there will, in this sport, always be room for the ballsy underdog, the guy willing to put his body anywhere for the cause, and it matters not how much he weighs.
All that matters is that, when knocked down, he gets up again, for we all get knocked down, and you either come back fighting or you don't.
There will always be a place for someone as talented, as pure, as Abendanon too. Last week the monsters got him, next week they might not be so lucky. One thing's for sure: he did The Rock proud and, in Bath, that's some accolade.Reuse content