David Flatman: Bell's rope-a-dope tactic and Clarke's nosebleed are my season highlights
From the Front Row
Finishing the season while other sides are still going creates a bit of an anti-climax. Our absence from the play-offs serves to tint the cider-fuelled laments of the evening and, while happy to have qualified for the Heineken Cup next season, we remain an ever-so-slightly dissatisfied group. And this is good; a display of pure, real glee at finishing fifth would spell danger.
In this game one must be robust enough to take these things on the chin(s); as players we have only ourselves to blame. So with this collection of emotions put into a box in my mind marked "Don't Be Soft", it is possible to look back on some of the highlights – and lowlights – of the campaign.
In rugby, as in every sport, there are good times and there are bad. There are weeks when the team feels unbeatable, and weeks when nothing seems to gel. A few years ago, during a frankly vile week spent with a load of moustachioed Special Forces physical instructors in quite unacceptably short shorts, we were given one piece of information that has always stuck with me: "When the shit hits the fan, forget patterns, forget drills, it's your sense of humour that brings perspective, that gets you through." The proverbial turd has, as it does every season, hit the proverbial turbine once or twice this year and, consequently, there have been a few moments of real, retrospective gold.
When we at Bath travelled to play Northampton before Christmas, we ran into a team so rampant I think they would have beaten the All Blacks on the night, even if they'd had to play them straight after us. I was nursing a knock that night and tucked up all snug and warm on the sofa but, while watching on television, I spotted something I would later ask about. During a series of gruesome scrums where the Saints pack seemed to have the power of 20 men, I saw Duncan Bell mutter something to his fellow bookend, David Barnes.
It turns out that, having plucked his head from his own backside, Bell had turned to his pal and said: "Don't worry mate, I'm doing the old rope-a-dope, he won't know what's hit him this time."
Sometimes things just go wrong, it's how you deal with it that counts. In Danny Grewcock's last training session he did something quite unprecedented; he threw an overhead pass (which landed on the floor) and a flashy offload (same). Leading into our vital last match, and with all of our sponsors and upper management watching, the pressure was on. "Cock," I whispered to him, "it's a bit bloody late to go all flamboyant. Just stick to whacking stuff, eh?"
Were I to hand out a "Worst Trainer" of the year award there would be a tie. I'm not sure I saw Nick Abendanon or Butch James at the training ground this season, perhaps they got lost en route from the coffee shop. The problem with these two, though, was that they were probably our two best players. When asked by me – every day – what on earth he was doing at training, Butch invariably answered "free coffee, my boy". Nick tended to hate missing sessions so offered somewhat less quippy ripostes, but that didn't stop me asking.
Contrary to what you might expect, I would say the best team we played this year was the Exeter we faced at Sandy Park. We won the match, but only just. They weren't tough to play against because they had a gaggle of game breakers or because they were bigger and stronger than we were. No, they worked together and performed their individual roles better than anyone I've faced in a while. The front row hit scrums, hit rucks and hit people (Chris Budgen aside, who made about 35 ball carries that night and who has, quite rightly, been nominated for the prestigious RPA Players' Player of the Year).
The locks jumped, tackled and rucked. The back row – and what a back row – just careered around the field like Banshees on a mission, they were immense. And Gareth Steenson ran the show. What a set of blokes; we left the field that night with complete respect. One highlight of that match was the Chiefs' super-abrasive hooker and old friend Neil Clarke popping up from a scrum with a nosebleed asking: "Who the **** did that?" A reasonable question, but not one that garnered any answers. All the answer he needed was the smirk on the face of a team-mate, whose name escapes me, at the next lineout: "Nice to see you again, Clarkey," he said. Without offering too many compromising details, Mr Clarke enjoyed his quest for vengeance thereafter, and a nice pint with us all afterwards.
Inevitably, a season without trophies is a season lost. As professionals we are paid to win but, seeing as only one team can win each competition, we must develop methods for dealing with this disappointment.
In so many ways the game has changed but still we fight like bitter enemies, we work hard to undermine our opponents' efforts in public and, for 80 minutes each week, we want nothing more than the men facing us to fail in dramatic style, leaving us to perform laps of honour and to pat ourselves on the back. But, once the mud and blood is washed away, humility and camaraderie reigns, and we are brothers again. Until next time...