David Flatman: Yes it's tough on the pitch but it will be much harder off it - News & Comment - Rugby Union - The Independent

David Flatman: Yes it's tough on the pitch but it will be much harder off it

From The Front Row

There must something in the water in Bath; everyone seems to be retiring. First Lewis Moody calls time ona quite stunning career, then club stalwart Andy Beattie does the same. But these announcements seem to have become so regular nowadays that in truth they tend to be old news before the ink has dried.

And even if this is not the case, I try to make it so by asking who these chaps are whenever I see them. Any text messages are met with a standard "Sorry, who is this?" reply, and any face-to-face meetings are begun with a formal introduction, as if we have never met.

I regard these behaviours asa vital part of the retirement process. You see, one thing that rugby teaches a bloke is that, while it's nice and warm and fluffy, sympathy gets you nowhere. There is very little beating around the bush that is reality, and we would not have it any other way.

But there are, of course – with bravado pushed aside – myriad emotions that surround these periods, and not just for the player leaving the changing room for the last time.

Naturally, they will have a huge amount to deal with, not least the prospect of joining – usually for the first time – the real world at the bottom of one ladder or another and fighting to survive a million miles from their comfort zone.

This can be terrifying. There are always players whose progression is smooth and predictable, but these are the fortunate few; the rest of us look on with undisguised jealousy in our eyes.

For your run-of-the-mill Premiership player, there is a strange period of transition that begins in the final year or two of his career. Yes, there is still rugby to be played and yes, he will give it everything, as usual. But once the training is done for the day and the drive home begins, his thoughts no longer flit from what computer game to play until suppertime or what coffee shop might make an ideal base camp for the afternoon.

Instead, he begins to realise – provided he is sufficiently self-aware – that this dream will not last much longer, never mind forever. And he starts to sweat.

The first reaction upon hearing of a friend's retirement is sadness. Never again willwe sit in the bath together moaning about the mindless running dished out by the fitness coach.

Never again will we wander into town together on a Saturday night, still bleeding and bruised from battle, and share that first cold pint knowing we earned every drop together, and for the cause.

Never again will I look over my shoulder when I'm five metres from our own line and under the cosh and see my mate there, ready to die before he lets me down.

These situations just do not come about in real life, so when our bubble bursts – and it always bursts eventually – it goes with a bang. Machismo aside, it is just bloody sad.

But this is life, and the rawness of the emotion abates with time. And then the jokes start and that old camaraderie that is bred into all who play the game returns, to the relief of every man in the room.

And what comes next is a cold sense of truth. It is as if a man called Reality grabs you by the throat and screams at you: "This day will come for you too. It will."

The conscious mind does its best to dissolve these thoughts and replace them with something altogether more superficial, but it never works. "No," your mind tells you in the car on the way home, "it is time to prepare." That does not ever mean putting rugby on the back burner; to do so would tarnish one's legacy and would be disrespectful to both team-mates and wage payers alike. But prepare we must.

Being honest, I am in that zone now. My rugby and my club still mean the absolute world to me and I want to play every game and complete every training session.

But in my free time I must now begin to look further ahead, I must be constructive, I must ask for help and I must be as honest with myself as I have ever been.

I want to win the league before I retire, and the Heineken Cup. But I also want a job that I love once my gum shield has been binned for good, because I want my life to be as fun and fulfilling in the future as it has been so far.

But that will all have to wait until tomorrow, for today I am busy shopping for a pipe and slippers to give to Mr Beattie, former Bath Rugby player, as a retirement gift.

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