As a 15 year-old, scrapping it out on a Sunday morning and waiting by the television all day for Rugby Special to begin, I dreamed only of my name and my team in bold print on the back page of the newspaper. In my mind we were dominant; we were champions. Like most kids, all I ever thought about was winning.
Of course, we all realise that winning every game is impossible and that, at some point, we will have to negotiate that sour aftertaste instantly recognisable as defeat. We will give everything and come up second. When considered logically,it seems odd that, seeing as one team lose in almost every game, defeat remains so hard to take.
But it does. And when it keeps on happening it just gets harder. We at Bath are currently in a horrible vein of form. We will win soon – hopefully against London Irish today – and we will win plenty of games before the season is out. But, until that result comes, we exist in the foggy midst of the greyest of clouds. With each loss, the weight hanging around our necks gets heavier, and the pressure surrounding the next match increases. This is not a complaint; as with all sportspeople, our destiny rests in our hands.
Everybody reacts differently to a loss. I tend to spend the night sulking and the next day being generallyunpleasant to be around. Come Monday morning, though, I try to regain a positive outlook, knowing that negativity will do nothing to help me and my mates get where we need to be. All that matters at times like this is improving our game sufficiently to win a match. Nothingelse. No big picture, no league tables, no targeting of different competitions. Just help find a way to win, or keep quiet.
When the focus of the squad becomes this intense, the group dynamic alters accordingly. Sure, there is still laughter and fun to be had – a team that never smiles never wins, I am convinced of that – but there is also a new, steely glaze just visible behind the eyes of the men charged with restoring honour to the badge. The injured men batter their way through the mind-blowing monotony of repetitive rehabilitation, feeling utterly impotent as the other lads roll out week after week.
The young, aspiring professionals sense the tension in the room and shuffle about trying not to be seen, hoping not to say the wrong thing to the wrong guy. The coaches show us, on a big screen with no hiding place, where exactly we haven't done as we said we would, all the while – presumably – wondering how experienced players can get the same things wrong game after game. Of course these errors happen every week, but their significance is exacerbated when they contribute to a loss. Most sins are forgiven when you score more points that the other mob. This is sport.
Pressure comes from outside, too, and, even though we are told from an early age to ignore it all, we all read the papers (well, the props do at least), and we all watch rugby on the television, so we hear the experts' views on our performance which, when under par, can be tough to digest. If, like me, you are lucky enough to have mates who think they are funny, you soon find out if somebody has criticised you: "Commentators said you were crap today. We Agree!" was one particularly sensitive text message I received from an old school chum after a recent match. Needless to say I sent a hitman to his home.
And the supporters, too, make their opinions known. I will never complain if every Twitter message is not complimentary, but some of the recent abuse has been shocking. I could never type some of these things out to someone I do not know and press "send", but we can never legislate for what makes others angry. Our fans are spending their money and time on us, and we fully acknowledge our responsibility to repay them with performances worthy of their loyalty.We would be nothing without them.
So the pressure mounts. But, actually, this can be a blessing. When all about you descends into frenzy, calmness and encouragement can create a bubble of hope in which we can exist, alone but for one another. As a former coach of mine once said: "When times get nasty, you circle the wagons; you protect your own." And so we will.
As a group of blokes we are closer than ever, and this mutual respect and a commitment to do whatever it takes will lead us to victory. What a feeling it will be.