David Flatman: Pride of Pienaar to help me prove Sarries wrong
View from the front row with Bath & England prop
Sunday 28 February 2010
Returning to one's old stomping ground with one's new team evokes a number of different emotions. There is the odd feeling of walking into the visitors' changing room, the relative quiet when running out on to the field and, of course, the especially fervent desire to win and prove – even if only to oneself – that they ought never to have let you go.
Having been a Bath man for seven years – two more than my stint at Saracens – those feelings really should have subsided by now, right? Well, no, actually. Admittedly, I barely recognise a single player's face up there these days and the management team, bar the owner, is completely different, but still, there is a certain spice to this fixture in my mind. The fans remain and the kitman has never left, so perhaps I'm trying to prove a point to them!
I recently attended the premiere of Invictus, the Clint Eastwood film based around South Africa's 1995 World Cup victory. While on the red carpet (it was the only way in, I was not invited) I saw a bloke who looked uncannily like Sting on steroids being hounded by cameras and loving it; it was Francois Pienaar, my former team-mate, captain and coach at Saracens. I said hello and was nearly blinded by the blasting of high-level flashes all round. This is the life, I thought, until I heard one photographer's enquiry as to my identity answered with: "That's Julian White, innit?" Then I knew it was time to disappear, but Francois stayed in his comfort zone, seemingly feeding off the bright lights.
My time working alongside and under Pienaar was invaluable. He taught me some very important lessons and, invariably, his teaching technique was to lead by example. I don't think it is offensive or controversial to say that he did not have the skill of a Zinzan Brooke or the athleticism of a Richard Hill but one thing he did have on his side was a level of utter hardness that few have matched.
His freakish natural strength and frightening, seemingly inbuilt, aggression made him a fearsome opponent and invaluable member of our team. I remember as an 18-year-old playing against Bedford in a Premiership game and the prop against me was mouthing off before the first scrum. Error. About three seconds after we engaged he was asleep, courtesy of Frankie, my South African protector. "I'll look after you till you're 20, kid," he used to say, "then you're on your own." Needless to say, I remained a teenager for the next five years.
He taught me a lot about how an older player ought to behave towards aspiring pros. He taught me that hard work and stubbornness are commodities far more valuable than talent and that any backward step taken on the field should be viewed as a violation of one's moral code. What he didn't teach me was how to flourish in the spotlight should the paparazzi point their weapons my way. He kept those secrets to himself and fortunately, seeing as I appear to resemble every English prop except myself, it seems they'd have been wasted anyway.
Flyboys fire but Watson is hair to throne
Recently, after a somewhat bumpy start to the season, we at Bath have started to play some nice stuff. Of course, we had begun winning again before the return of the mighty Butch James but it would be silly to call the timing of his return and our spike in form a coincidence.
He seems to have the innate ability to release those players outside him and that just makes everyone else's life so much easier; a team moving forward from first phase are so much more likely to create momentum from the ensuing plays that it is almost harder to lose ground than make it. That coupled with his love of the physical side of the game – a love that surely no fly-half in world rugby can claim to match – makes him quite the package. Now all we need to do is persuade him that other people are allowed to make tackles too.
Olly Barkley's return, too, should help us continue to improve towards the latter stages of this campaign. Apart from his incisive running and intelligent decision-making, he is a points machine and, without wishing to put a commentator's curse on that left boot, his consistency from the kicking tee ought to improve our odds of closing out those tight games.
Of course, we wouldn't want to give these two flyboys all the credit so, in typically sharing fashion, I am going to spread some of it elsewhere; Luke Watson, as he will gladly tell you, has made quite an impact at The Rec. Not one to shrink into the background, his confidence, relentless and impish pranks and, perhaps more importantly, performances on the field have, at times, left us open-mouthed. The man described by John Smit as "cancerous" and "divisive" has proved an unadulterated hit with the Bath boys. South Africa's loss is our gain (despite that ridiculous haircut).
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