David Flatman: So long, little man. Shame the Pope stole your thunder

From the Front Row: If he wants to watch the big boys play, we might get him a booster seat

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The Independent Online

The only thing that is certain about owning a dog is that it will die and it will be sad. Yet still we bring them into our lives, we embrace all the loyalty they show us and the affection in which they are unconditionally held, and we forgive the little errors they make along the way.

At Bath we loved Lee Mears's loyalty, we made it clear at all times that he was a man close to our sporting hearts and we forgave the odd missed tackle – not that there were many. Now he isn't here any more and, frankly, he is missed.

Mearsy and I first played together in an England Schoolboys front row that, if I may be so bold, was a decent one. It was decent because of him. Both the tighthead prop, Jonny Dawson, and I were capable of holding up a scrum and pushing here and there, but he was the real technician.

And he had to be, because he was approximately four feet tall, so brute force was never going to be his method of mastery. He was short, yes, but freakishly powerful and, annoyingly for the rest of the chubbies, unnaturally athletic. His throwing was always top- class. His attitude was simple: bring them on – all of them.

Pig, as we call him, has always had a very annoying habit when driving his car of calling me on the phone simply to kill time. He has nothing to talk about – primarily because we would have been together all day anyway – and he barely listens when I speak. So last week, when my phone rang as I lay in bed, I assumed he was on his way back from somewhere and that Radio 4 was not quite cutting the mustard.

Instead he told me that he was having to retire immediately due to an abnormality picked up during a heart scan. This got my attention, and it was the sort of phone call that one prays never to receive. Of all the blokes in the game, Mearsy deserved better, I thought, but his natural positivity snapped me out of my melancholic haze in an instant.

"I've had a great knock, mate," he said, "so don't feel too sorry for me."

I actually think that the rugby environment is the best place on earth to receive bad news. There is massive respect among players, there is a real level of care for one another and there is brutal humour that must never disappear. Mearsy is sad, and he can absolutely share that with the boys; there are no egos at times like these. But he is also still one of the lads, so he must expect a bit of banter.

When the Pope decided to retire on the same day, I heard a collective laugh from around the clubhouse; Mearsy's thunder had been well and truly stolen. The fact that he is a devout Catholic mattered not a hang as we all revelled in the violent shifting of the press's spotlight. I suspect he would have it no other way.

The stats – 268 games for Bath, 42 for England and a tour with the British Lions – tell us how special a player he was, and they offer a hint at the work that must have gone on behind the scenes. I don't think he was ever really bothered by his size; he seemed perfectly confident in the explosive power contained in those legs that really belong on an Olympic weightlifter, and I expect he always knew that, no matter how big his opposite number was, he had worked harder in the days preceding their meeting.

He could run forever, his earthworm-low centre of gravity meant he was incredibly nimble and his general skill level and knowledge of the game were high-end.

Above all else, though, it was the grit and toughness behind that permanent smile which took him to the very top. A lovely man, yes, but a brutally competitive one come Saturday afternoon.

So our mate who has always been there is there no longer, and he will absolutely leave a hole. People are already asking how we will replace him, and my answer is that we should not even try. Bath will have to find a new hero, as this one has clocked out for the last time.

Like any retiring player, he will forever be welcomed back to the ground he once called home. If he wants to watch the big boys play, though, we might have to get him a booster seat.

So long, Pig, and thank you for the memories. See you in the cheap seats.