David Flatman: Sun, sea and surf? I'll settle for the showers
View from the front row with Bath & England prop
Sunday 14 February 2010
There are times when, as a professional rugby player, one wonders what on earth one is doing here. Times when remembering that one is supposed to be living the dream is impossible, when all perspective is lost and the normally gut-wrenching prospect of being sat behind a desk in a sanitised, air-conditioned office becomes a veritable fantasy. Admittedly, these times don't come around very often but, whether many players admit it or not, every one of us has our moments.
For some, it is the early start to get to the gym on time and lift weights that God never intended man to lift. For others, it can be the news that a session will include an element of physical contact. These are parts of the job I actually enjoy; weight- lifting is the one part of our training where I get to lord it over the Nick Abendanons of this world and, even after all these years, I still need to be the first at the gym, so the 9.30am lie-in slot that Duncan Bell calls his own makes me nervous. Sleep does not come easily with a forever stiff neck and a nose that stopped functioning years ago after receiving a perfectly timed elbow from Saints' Olivier Brouzet (must remember to thank him), so the earlier the better.
No, my most recent "moment" came last Sunday when, about 15 minutes into England Saxons' match against Italy A, I saw a boot fly towards my unprotected head and land with great force. For those of you instantly worried about foul play ruining our beloved game, be calm; it was my team-mate. Wasps' northern hooker Rob Webber admitted all after the match in typical Yorkshire fashion: "Sorry 'bout th'ead, pal. First pint's on me." Good enough for me. Anyway, it was as I walked past a mirror en route to the abattoir/stitching room that I saw my new, red England shirt and my claret-drenched face. I said to the doctor: "Blimey, this doesn't happen in the Sky studio. Not often anyway." OK, those weren't my exact words, but my Grandma reads these articles and she has standards.
It is with a decent degree of empathy that I listen to players' occasional longings for the rugby dream to be lived out in a cosier, less arduous environment. The Guinness Premiership is a tough, attritional, long old competition and, every so often, it can feel like one's job does not vary quite enough from that of a plough horse. So the launch of Melbourne's rugby franchise has understandably got tongues wagging on the circuit. The promise is of gorgeous weather, high-octane attacking rugby with less emphasis on defence and fewer games. But is the grass always greener?
John Connolly, former head coach of both Australia and Bath Rugby, was in town last week for a visit (this is code for a scouting mission to poach our mates) and a few of us met him for breakfast. He spoke of the lifestyle change Melbourne could offer a young player used to the London grind or West Country rain showers. It was all good fun, but I could not help thinking he was making sense. It sounded wonderful. This new team will have the added benefit of no expectation weighing heavily on their shoulders; established teams will be expected to beat them with ease, so Melbourne will be underdogs for a good while.
As with any big decision, there are arguments both ways. The Premiership is where I belong (not that the old dog offered me a job). I love it when the grounds harden up and the rugby gets loose and open but I also cherish the muddy, grimy graft of a Friday night game at The Rec. I can see that with an enormous salary as a sweetener, a couple of seasons of the good life with fewer games to batter the body and more sun to heal it could benefit certain players. I have no idea if Danny Cipriani will go, but I can see why he would; England have made it clear, for now at least, he isn't in their plans. He could hone his attacking skills, thrive on the hard, fast grounds and come back a reinvented package and mount his challenge a more rounded man. James Haskell took a punt in moving to Paris but it's working out pretty well for him.
I think we will see a good handful of top European players running out for Melbourne next season. Some may be high profile and others may hope that their move elevates them to a higher pay grade. One thing is certain; our interest in Super 15 will never have been keener and I look forward to some of these guys landing back in the Premiership sharper and more dangerous. In the short term, it will cost the domestic game some valuable assets but, soon enough, they will be back and we will all be waiting to see what they have learnt.
So, they can go and bask in the sunshine, work on their surfing and be generally smug, but I'll be happy here at home. As long as I continue to enjoy driving to the gym in the dark and battering into my mates on a Tuesday morning in the mud and sludge, I'll keep living the dream.
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