Over the years the game has certainly changed. The blokes are bigger now, the training and analysis more precise and these elements combine to make the collisions more crushing and the expected workload more mountainous. Scrummaging is far more competitive than it used to be and the breakdown is now so littered with dos and do nots that the sheer concentration needed is mind-blowing. There are, however, some things that, we pray, will never change.
I was lucky enough to play for the Saracens team that travelled to Ulster in 1999 for a must-win Heineken Cup match and came away with the points. Though it was a truly memorable win against the odds, the evening was marred by the horrific injury sustained by our tighthead prop, former British and Irish Lion Paul Wallace. He managed to fracture and dislocate his ankle and, as the man who was lying on top of him while he was screaming, I can testify to the horror of the moment.
As the final whistle blew, we celebrated for a matter of seconds before our thoughts drifted back to our fallen friend. The changing room was both relieved and sombre at the same time; sombre, that is, until I checked my phone. Expecting a message of congratulation from my parents at home, I was staggered to see Wally's name pop up on my screen. "I'll get through this, boys, don't worry," he said, "just you lot say hi to 'The Fly' for me." The fact he was comfortable enough to text was promising but that did not stop me being confused; what was The Fly?
The Fly, as it turned out, was the nightclub to which we all flocked that night for a celebratory drink. Ulstermen and Saracens alike shared jokes, beers and kebabs (I had salad) late into the night and Wally was toasted more than once. This week's visit was similar in terms of atmosphere, although somewhat more restrained (a 9am flight home can't help but temper one's enthusiasm).
Ulster, or rather Ravenhill, retains all that is sacred about the rugby ground. To play there is to enter one of Europe's most hostile, oppressive environments where everything – weather included – seems stacked in favour of the home team. The howling, growling wind and the horizontal, seemingly grit-infused rain conspires to make forward progress remarkably difficult. But as soon as the match is over, the animals become gentlemen and all of rugby's bad intentions seem to evaporate into the Belfast mist as the men with whom one was just brawling enquire as to your movements for the evening.
In these days of professionalism and performance, and after – let's face it – a rather uncomfortable summer, rugby players have to take it a bit easier. We have to pay closer attention to our behaviour in public and remember that, no matter how invisible we feel, there is always someone watching. This could easily serve to destroy the social side of the game, to put an end to the mini-friendships struck up on Saturday nights and often only rekindled when that same fixture comes around again. But despite the pressure now rightly heaped on the modern game, despite the microscope which is hovering over our heads, the players themselves seem intent on keeping alive the bonds, the mutual, unreserved respect and understanding only felt between battle-hardened warriors.
So, after a predictably hard match on Friday night we did pop out, and while it was not quite as raucous as I remember with Saracens, we enjoyed each other's company over a few pints of local brew. It was early (ish) to bed and, once on the plane, I must say I was glad not to be feeling like death. So hospitable were the Ulster boys that we would have felt rude had we not accepted their invitation to the pub. And anyway, above all that, it's what Wally would have wanted.
A case of the kit hitting the fan
The exotic, magical mystery tour that is the Heineken Cup is wasted on the losing team. The romance of visiting new rugby hotbeds disintegrates when the scoreboard gets it wrong. Friday night in Ulster was genuinely fun, until we lost.
All people spoke about in the lead-up to the match was the hostile reception that was waiting for us. To be honest, and this is by no means meant as an insult to the players, staff and supporters who make rainy Belfast one of European rugby's greatest venues year after year, we felt passion but no hostility. The new stand at Ravenhill is brilliant, the noise is deafening. This all adds to the occasion – not being able to hear the lineout calls, the partisan reaction to every decision and the almost tangible desire in the hearts of everyone in the ground.
There was one chap, a few pints in, I'd dare to presume, who tried to live up to the hype: "Youse lot look ridiculous in that kit. Disgraceful." He was referring to our new camouflage Heineken Cup strip (which I'm sporting above and which we all secretly love despite its Parisian fruitiness). However, the time it took us to get changed was time for him to realise the error of his ways. As we left we saw the heckler again. "Aye, that kit's out there alright," he said, "but this is the Heineken."
Meehan gives it to us straight
As much as I love watching Premier League football, I now find myself waiting until Sunday morning for my Match Of The Day fix. The reason is that, by then, Sky Plus has recorded it so I can fast-forward through bits I don't like. These bits do not consist of Olympic-standard diving and abuse of the poor officials but the post-match interviews with managers. Martin O'Neill I can watch, the rest make me feel murderous.
Where they learnt to answer simple, football-related questions I do not know. Saying what they mean seems too much to ask, so they switch into Police Superintendent mode.
So at Bath we found it refreshing, not depressing, when Steve Meehan spoke his mind last week after our loss to Quins. He claimed "there were moments in the game where our accuracy and application wasn't what it should have been", and he was right. This approach might be a bit unorthodox but at least we know where we stand. Sadly, as I watched the game back last Sunday it was the rugby that needed fast-forwarding.