As an 18-year- old boy, I turned up with my mate Jonny Dawson at the Saracens training ground. We were shown to the ice-cold locker room, told there was no way we were getting one of our own and instructed to make sure our gear was not left in the way of any of the players. We were then led into a team meeting for which we were late. Mark Evans, then the boss, told us to "piss off and wait outside".
Fifteen minutes into my first training session with the big boys I felt so exhausted that a fear filled my startled body; I truly thought that this game was too hard for me. I was nowhere near ready. I was wheezing, I was vomiting and I was bang out of my depth. It was at that point that Tony Diprose, our No 8, grabbed me by the collar and told me to stick with him.
He might not recall but he pushed me – literally – through that running session, and without him I honestly think I might have dropped to my knees and rung the bell. A year later I accidentally caught him with an elbow in training and he spent the following hour filling me in at every opportunity. Quite right, too. As I reminisce, I realise that he both showed compassion and demanded respect in equal measure. He, along with so many of the great men with whom I have played, taught me so much.
Some old geezers claim that their first seasons "feel like they were yesterday". I do not. In truth, 1998 feels like it might well have been 100 years ago. My 32-year-old carcass looks, to the untrained eye, to be in relatively decent working order and, were I a banker or bus driver, this would indeed be a fair assumption. However, after serving me so well for so long, it has finally broken once and for all.
On Friday I announced my retirement from rugby because of a persistent hand injury. I knew what the press release was going to say and I knew what time it would be released, but somehow it was still an enormous shock to me. The text messages rolled in, my phone went into overdrive and I sat. I just sat. I did not cry, I did not laugh. I just sat and I dreamed. My god, I thought, there are some memories in this head of mine. And despite not being a particularly spiritual man, I thanked God that I was in good enough nick to remember so many of them. Including the days on which my daughters were born, this may have been the most reflective, honest moment of my life so far.
Those days were pure, undiluted joy. This was one filled with joy, certainly, but also one replete with sadness, regret, fear and proper, concrete pride. I was never the best player in the world, but I always stuck my head in and tried for my mates and, when I think about it, that is all I ever wanted from any of the men beside whom I stood.
It was at this point that I began – perhaps for the first time – to realise how lucky I am. Yes, I have been told I must never play again, but at least I have played. And now I can walk away. My old friend and Saracens team-mate Alex Bennett broke his neck during a game recently. He has not walked away yet. He will, because he has more determination in his soul than any man could ever need. But because of men such as him, and Matt Hampson, I now know that I have no right to feel anything but utterly, beautifully lucky. And I do.
At 23 I arrived at The Rec, and by 24 I knew I was home. Our game will always need journeyman professionals; they add spice to a squad, they bring variety and interest. But rugby will also always need men who hold their clubs in their hearts, men who would never leave. Bath Rugby has been in my heart for a long time now and it always will be. Our former head coach John Connelly once told me: "Mate, when you clock off, your career will seem like one big blur. What you'll remember is the feeling it always gave you and the feeling of going somewhere extraordinary with blokes you'd die for." He was right, the old goat.
Honestly, I would love to have won more competitions. I would love to have been injured less. I would love to have gained more caps for my country. But when you are all grown up, these wants dissolve. I take so much with me that to lament what might have been but never was would be to do my career an injustice.
There is an awful lot to think about in the days after this decision is made. I had to tell my wife, I had to call my mum and dad. They were all wonderful, as expected, but still, these are emotional conversations. And in a time of heightened emotion, practicalities are a million miles from the front of one's mind, but they must be negotiated nevertheless. I wanted to get straight on a plane, but there was just too much to do.
Of course, the ultimate practicality to consider is what on earth to do next. This is when one really needs help. Not sympathy – that is appreciated but it gets us nowhere. No, I needed help, and I wondered where to look. I need not have wondered, for the rugby club that was always there for me was there once again. Next season I will swap my sweaty shorts for a pair of chinos and begin a new career at Bath in a communications role, this time in the warm and dry.
This is not "jobs for the boys" and, just as it was as a player, there will be pressure to perform, and huge humility and commitment will be required. This is just how I like it. The transition will, in a physical sense, be instant, while the psychological shift may take far longer. The important thing will be to remind myself every day just how lucky I have been, lest I forget.
I am not accepting an Oscar, so I shall refrain from inserting a self-indulgent, never-ending list of special people to whom I feel indebted. From the London physiotherapist who saved my career when every "expert" had told me I would never play again, to the Australian forwards coach who worked tirelessly to change every training habit I had so that I might get my body to work when all believed it was obsolete, to the old, knackered, Welsh captain who inspired me to play beyond my real ability, they all know who they are.
I began learning on day one and continued until the last game I played. I learned that there are men throughout rugby who will give to others without thought for themselves. And from these men I learned what it is to work for others, to graft in order that the team – a group of your closest pals – can succeed.
It is quite the greatest thing a sportsman can feel. I may be a sportsman no longer, but this feeling will stay with me forever. Thank you, and goodbye.
Moments and men I will always remember
* My best-loved ground is The Rec. But in terms of places to visit and play, for me, Kingsholm takes some beating. Aggressive, partisan, extremely loud and probably about perfect. I felt privileged to play there.
* The best player I played with was never especially good at running, catching or passing. Jonathan Humphreys, the Welsh hooker, was the most viciously competitive man I ever met. With his body in pieces, he would collide with such venom that, at times, his own team-mates stopped and gawped. The Welsh lads nicknamed him "Inspiration". My rugby hero.
* The toughest opponent I encountered was Francois Pienaar. Again, not necessarily gifted in terms of skill, but his will was shatterproof. He was harder than steel.
* My favourite match was England v Argentina in 2002. The Pumas had murdered the Grand Slam-winning French team the week before and we had rested lots of big names. Nobody expected us to do it but we did. At the time, it felt monumental. I shared a hug with scrum coach Keith Roach, Phil Vickery and Steve Thompson that I will never forget.
* My least favorite game was the day I popped my shoulder out against Sarries but, having been out for so long with injuries, I refused to come off. I stayed on and was destroyed by Cobus Visagie. I had major surgery a week later. What I, at the time, saw as bravery, I soon realised had been macho and stupid. We got drilled, and I learned an awful lot!
* The funniest man in the game is Julian White. A great man, he has never been comfortable in the public eye. And the wider public is poorer for it.
* The biggest influence on my career is a tough one. I have had some wonderful blokes as coaches — and some less wonderful! Australian Michael Foley is a technical genius. Mark Bakewell is that, too, as well as being a wonderful, unflinching mate. And Martin Haag is just a quality individual.
* There are so many characters that to choose one is impossible. Kris Chesney, of Saracens and Toulon fame, is hilarious. I would sign him in an instant — at any age — to listen to him abusing everyone in the room with no thought whatsoever to political correctness.
* The biggest moaner is Richard Hill. He never stopped. Perhaps the greatest back rower in English history, his enjoyment came through graft and victory. I never met a better man to help guide young players.
* The best tourist is Mark Regan, by a mile. His relentless, repetitive, base humour makes the team bus a side-sitting place to be. He just does not stop!Reuse content