Steve Cotton: Remarkable Flatman a joy to interview
When people – and, by 'people', I mean that rare thing of a work experience kid who is not afraid of his or her own shadow and voice – ask me who is the best interviewee I have ever encountered, I do not even have to think.
Not 'have you ever been star-struck interviewing anyone?', 'who is the most famous person you have interviewed?' or 'who is the most successful sportsperson you have interviewed?' – but who is the best to interview? Who would you want to interview time and time and time again?
The answer is simple – and I can assure you that the fact David Flatman was this week forced to retire from professional rugby will have been met with a collective groan from the esteemed members of the Rugby Union Writers' Club.
Flatman is an interviewer's dream, whether the format is television, radio, newspaper, podcast, email or anything else. Funny, insightful, self-effacing and not afraid to say what is on his mind – but never in a crass or snide way – he could turn even the blandest of questions into 800 words of sizzling copy.
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He is so good that a national newspaper, rather than putting questions to him and then writing an article around his responses, gave him his own regular column – a role in which he has excelled.
I often write about the lack of characters in professional football – and how the controversy provided by Mario Balotelli and Joey Barton, for example, is deemed acceptable by many because of a distinct lack of interesting people elsewhere in the game.
Flatman, who would vary from comedian to philosopher to raconteur to astute rugby tactician in the space of a five-minute conversation, never had to resort to controversy to be seen as a character.
I once, over a few festive ales, asked an intelligent footballer, who, at the time was plying his trade in League Two, why he and his peers could not be more like Flatman – open, interesting, honest – when it came to interview time. "Because people like you would stitch me up," he replied.
That may say more about the cultures of two very different games than it does about the individuals involved – but Flatman has not spent his career operating in the lower reaches of rugby. He won the first of eight England caps at the age of 20 and spent 14 years playing in the Premiership at a time when the money and status involved in the game were skyrocketing.
Flatman is 32, and, after Achilles and shoulder problems denied him the opportunity to add to his England caps, he has finally been beaten by a hand injury. There have, unfortunately, been far too many stories written in the past year about brave men of the Bath pack having to retire. David Barnes, Lewis Moody, Andy Beattie, Duncan Bell and Flatman have now all left the field. From the dominant set of forwards put together by John Connolly in 2003, only Lee Mears remains at Bath.
Flatman has been a wonderful character of the game – but he was not signed by Connolly to make people laugh. A serious, uncompromising force on the field, he pushed his body to, and beyond, its limits in pursuit of being the best prop he could be.
To have played 182 times in the Premiership and 53 times in major European competition, despite the injuries he had, is a testament to his determination and ability. In one of the hardest positions on the field, Flatman gave his all – and when it was not good enough he held up his hands and admitted as much.
After starting only 19 Premiership games in four seasons between 2004-08, he told me how all he wanted was to feel as if he was a professional rugby player again. He spoke of how he felt uncomfortable alongside his team-mates every day while he was not able to contribute on the field.
That was what it all boiled down to for Flatman: comradeship, respect and being part of a team. Individual success or glory was not his thing and he talked often about the 'mates' with whom he stood alongside on the field.
Even when Bath's hard-partying culture spiralled out of control in 2009, while, privately, Flatman probably recognised things had gone too far, he would never have gone on the record to criticise his team-mates. He was a mate first and foremost and always placed a great emphasis and significance on friendship. He is the kind of bloke from which every stag do could benefit.
The rugby field has lost a remarkable competitor – one who played his senior rugby exclusively in the professional era, but who carried all the best traits of the amateur days and held them close to his heart. Thankfully, Flatman will remain in the game in various capacities and we have certainly not heard the last of his wisdom.
Only three weeks ago, he wrote the following on the subject of the rugby player's summer holiday: "The summer break remains a wonderful time. OK, so for 10 or 15 years we cannot ever quite relax completely but this, for me, is a small price to pay.
"We are a blessed few and we are very lucky that our ultimate goal – running out to play for great clubs with our mates – motivates us in an instant."
Proof, if it were needed, of just how fragile and temporary a career in professional sport can be.