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David Flatman: Nightmare on legs, gladiator of old school

From the Front Row: Grewcock has a reputation as troublemaker but he retires as the most honest man in the game

Dylan Thomas once wrote: "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light." I do not suppose he had Danny Grewcock's retirement in mind, but he managed nevertheless to create the perfect requiem for the moment.

Over the next few weeks, there will be a handful of men playing their last games of rugby; this is a natural,cyclical phenomenon which, in objective terms, is just part of the gig. But few men will leave a hole as big as Grewcock. Not just because he's a hefty old lump, but also becausehe has, for so many years, been English rugby's gamest gladiator.

So often misunderstood, the most common and most flippant description of him has always been "animal on the field, big softie off it". I'm here to tell you this is wide of the mark. Well, half of it. On the field there was nobody – nobody – more desperate to win. For the most part, this translated into a massive work-rate and statistics which, for a man of his age and size, beggar belief.

For example, last week at Twickenham he made 21 tackles and missed none. Just to remind you, he is a 38-year-old lock and it was as hot as the Gobi out there. But this drive to win often didn't just manifest itself as effective contributions in attack and defence; it also gave him an edge in the mental game.

It was almost as if he took the field every week and said telepathically to his opponents: "You are going to need everything you've got to beat me, I will keep coming." This attitude makes anyone difficult to play against, but when combined with his desire to physically intimidate those facing him, it made him a nightmare on legs.

Everyone he ever played against knew he could run all day, hammer you in the tackle, fly in the line-out and move mountains in the scrummage, but they also knew that if they took a liberty – with any one of his team – there was a good chance they would get chinned for it. Old school? Perhaps, but he knew that, the odd red card aside, it helped his team and they appreciated his presence, and that was all that mattered.

Many castigated Grewcock for his violent temperament, and there are some explosions nobody – himself included – would defend, but in general he stayed on the right side of the line. Yes, he has been in trouble a few times but 227 games for Bath, 69 England caps and two Lions tours suggesthe played more than he missed.

A naturally aggressive man, he saw it as his role to use his physical prowess to dominate in a game where domination matters. Were he just a thug, though, there would be no respect for him. However, his behaviour, character and performances have combined to make him one of the most widely respected men in the game.

As for his character, well, "softie" just isn't quite the right adjective. Thankfully, he doesn't socialise with the same intensity he displayed on match days; this would make him rather awkward company. And as you would expect from any rugby player worth his salt, he is a gentleman at all times. But he also happens to be the most honest man you will ever meet.

This sounds odd, but in a world where "honesty" is a quality seldom truly realised, his abrasive, unflinching candidness has made him rugby's very own social and professional arbiter. With no thought of rank, he pulls up anybody he thinks is out of line, and is humble enough to appreciate the same in return. Should he disagree with the boss on any issue, he tells him immediately and frankly. Equally, if an Academy player at the club feels the need to correct him, he is happy to be critiqued.

He is also the person most likely to devote his time to you, willing to talk for hours about anything on your mind and always with a very definite perspective. This will serve him well in his new role as Bath mentor, just as long as none of the young players asks him what his plans are for his garden – they could be there all night.

This, I suppose, is just a flowery description of another modern professional who happens to be stepping off rugby's treadmill. It isn't like that, though. English rugby is saying goodbye to the man who trained harder, prepared more diligently and battled more ferociously than any before him. All Grewcock wanted to do was succeed; he craved not the admiration of others – in fact he actively avoided it. Well tough, he's got it anyway. You tell him.