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'I realised when I went to Toulon I'd been stuck in a rut... I didn't love what I did to get out of bed in the morning'

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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Funny how it has all turned out for veteran Bristol lock Dave Attwood. Having fallen out of love with the game some years ago the 24-cap England forward figured one more contract at Bath and that would be him happily finished. Not so. An unexpected 2018 detour to Toulon suddenly reawakened deadened feelings and with Pat Lam now his boss back in the Gallagher Premiership, Attwood is a soon-to-be 34-year-old who reckons he has got years left in him yet.

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He’s not without his aches and pains. A calf strain left him in the blocks when the latest Premiership campaign got going, but he has since flown up to top speed and is hopeful that current negotiations with Bristol regarding a new contract will conclude with a smile.

It would be further confirmation that locks with a considerable CV are increasingly worth their weight in gold the older they get. According to the latest Esportif Intelligence figures, second rows are the best-paid position in France and second-best in England. Nice work if you can get it.

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I’m up for discussion as we speak. I’m hoping to twist Pat’s arm into extending my stay a bit longer,” said Attwood to RugbyPass during a warts-and-all 30-minute interview that bounced around from his stagnation at Bath to rejuvenation at Toulon and Bristol, the petering out of his England career and research into degenerative brain conditions.

“Pat is pretty pragmatic and is pretty honest with what he thinks he is getting. It [lock] can be a good position. There is some food for thought for players looking at contracts but John Afoa is about 45 now and he is tracking 60, 70, 80 minutes every week so he is doing wonders for the tight five. If John Afoa can do it at 45, then Dave Attwood can do it at 33.

“I’m feeling pretty good. I had a bit of a calf twinge at the start of the year. It’s something you’re seeing more and more with the expectations on speed and muscular performance development. There are a lot of players in their 30s who have become susceptible to calf injuries and often these are kind of neurally driven.

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“You get a bit tight, the nerves in your back, and that drives the neural side, but we managed to get on top of that quite quickly and that settled down. I have been able to string a few games together and am starting to enjoy some decent form. It’s a convenient time to be fit and available because we are playing some decent rugby at the minute. It’s easier to play well when the team is playing well, put it that way.”

It’s a very different perspective to the disillusion Attwood felt this time three years ago. He’d missed the start of the 2017/18 season at Bath after a summer clean-out of the knee was required to solve issues with inflammation and when he returned, he got caught up in salary cap red tape.

The dilemma was that as soon as he played he would be included in the Bath cap and cause them a headache with their bottom line numbers. A loan to London Scottish was suggested, something which Attwood, last capped against South Africa in November 2016, understandably balked at. Instead, he eventually packed a bag for Toulon and the four-month escapade unwittingly transformed his career in a James Haskell-like way.

“It’s relatively well publicised that he went on a world tour of rugby and one of the things I remember him saying specifically is you don’t realise how blinkered you become (staying at one club). You don’t realise how pragmatic your decision making is because it is the same every day.

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“It’s like your children. You don’t wake up suddenly one day and go, ‘Oh my God, my son is six-foot tall’. That creeps up on you because you are seeing it every day. I was seeing pictures at Bath that were not new to me. I was kind of, ‘Oh well, that’s just how it is’.

“Getting out to Toulon showed me not only is there is a different attitude towards coaching available there is a different attitude towards winning and losing, but there is also a different attitude to strength and conditioning around fitness, about mental temperament, all of these things you suddenly become aware of.

“I was thrust into the situation where this kind of stuff is out there and available and it ended up working out really well for me. It’s a difficult thing to choreograph because of the nature of the Premiership, clubs don’t want to spend a load of money on an asset and then ship him off somewhere else and they might lose that asset.

Toulon was a replenishing eye-opener from the get-go for Attwood. “Week one we went skiing. Can you imagine a Premiership club going, ‘Right lads, we’re going skiing for the week’. Absolutely no way. I’d never been skiing before so I was having lessons paid for by the club and it was me and Bryan Habana and Duane Vermeulen learning to ski together.

“But there is a huge advantage to experienced players going out on loan and seeing different places but also experiencing different clubs and cultures. I was kind of in my last season at Bath, I was hoping to sign another year, maybe a two-year extension, at Bath and then call it a day, that was me.

“But getting to Toulon, moving to Bristol, I feel like there are years left in me. I have a passion for the game that I didn’t have before and part of that was recognising what I thought rugby was, was actually a slow poisoning of the vision as it were.

“Part of me was thinking this was ludicrous. If someone were to get injured that could be catastrophic but by the same token that is one of the reasons why that team played so well together. They got to do things, they got given rope and were allowed to try things to get out of their comfort zones, to have team bonding sessions.

“Absolutely there would have been hell to pay if someone got injured but it’s kind of high risk, high reward in that. The reward was the team bonding and ethos. Instantly I was ingratiated into the culture because of that trip and as a result, I played every game for the rest of the season and was respected when I spoke and was considerate when I listened. I was very much a part of the team and that could have taken six months to happen but I was fortunate in that when I arrived there were some things like that that allowed me to be thrust right into the heart of the culture.”

There was even a night calling bingo numbers to strangers in French. “Week two on the Tuesday night, I was sent to an address to do an appearance. I really didn’t know what the appearance was. There was a word that I didn’t recognise but it turns out it was the French for bingo. There was no club liaison there to help me out, there was just a bingo hall with 500 people in it and then I was playing bingo and calling bingo numbers.

“I tried to get every ounce of positivity out of it that I could. I felt like I was going to try and become fluent in French. I was going to engage in the culture and find out what the difference was trying to run a team meeting in French. The French league isn’t a stranger to having foreign imports but the French league is tired of foreign imports arriving and essentially taking it for granted.

“There are a number of players who have been involved playing rugby in France who never really invested in the culture of what it is to be French. They wouldn’t particularly work hard to learn the language. They wouldn’t work hard to ingratiate themselves to teammates and one of the things that I found really benefitted me on both sides is that endeavour to get involved.

“On the one side you feel more invested but on the other side, they feel more invested in you. Like, they will give you more time of day, they will spend more time trying to help you out, trying to make things work, trying to make things right because they feel like you care and there is a sense that there is a fatigue in the French league with players turning up, getting paid an awful lot of money and not really adding a lot to the culture and the environment and the club as a whole.

When he returned to England in summer 2018 for a final spin at Bath, Attwood was transformed. “I realised when I went to Toulon that I had been stuck in a rut. I was 30 and not really enjoying rugby. I was privileged to be playing, I recognised that, I was very fortunate to be able to do what I did but I didn’t love what I did to get out of bed in the morning, I wasn’t excited to go to work.

“Rugby is a profession. These are businesses and I’m absolutely okay with that, I understand I’m a commodity. My issue was with where I have fallen foul of rugby being a business is when management doesn’t necessarily treat it as a business. They still treat it like it is an old-school, amateur club and you rely on relationships and the love of the game to get you through.

“It’s one thing to use that but then it is another thing if you don’t employ that. So if you want to treat rugby players and rugby like it is a business then that is fine, but it’s like the genie and the lamp thing – you have got to understand that you can have phenomenal cosmic power but there are restrictions that come with that.

“Getting out of the environment I had been in for seven years, getting out to Toulon, that opened my eyes and I came back in my last season at Bath, I was players’ player of the year, I was loving rugby again and I had broken out of the mindset of functional, pragmatic rugby that you often get drawn into. The Premiership is a very gruelling mistress and it’s very easy to get segwayed into playing that very narrow, restricted brand of rugby.”

Shackle-free Bristol have taken Attwood onto another level. When he was there previously, a weather beaten squad short of youthful enthusiasm resulted in 2009 relegation and the then 22-year-old moving to Gloucester and then onto Bath. Now he has returned to an utterly changed landscape.

“That team was a very experienced team, shall we say,” he said, touching on the club’s demotion eleven years ago. “One of the exciting things is the current squad having such a home-grown feel, there are a lot of Bristolians, and it’s also a very young squad. Some of the standout performers, Callum Sheedy, Harry Randall, the orchestrators, they are both kind of barely out of nappies. They are very young and that’s an exciting thing with Bristol fans, the spine of the team is driven by such young players.

“People look at the rugby that Bristol play and say it’s very risky rugby, but it’s not risky rugby if that is what you practice. There’s no more risk passing a ball five metres from your try line than 50 metres from your try line if you practice passing the ball all over the place.

Attwood Bristol

Dave Attwood celebrates 2020 Challenge Cup final success (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

“If you only ever practice passing the ball when you are in the opposition half then absolutely it is very risky to pass the ball on your own try line. That was one of the exciting things when I came to Bristol, the mindset of expansive rugby that we are playing the game all over the field.

“It isn’t the kind of environment where you’re restricted and told you can’t do things. You are told to make decisions and if the best decision is you throw the miss-pass on your try line then that is the best decision. Pat will review that in the meeting and sometimes it is unfortunate, but what gets reviewed is why did you make that decision and if you made it with good reason then it was a good decision.

“I have been much more comfortable ball in hand. The amount of detail and work that Pat and the other coaches put into ball playing, ball carrying, the environments I have been involved with in the past there was very little detail… that was kind of a revelation that I never had to deal with before and that puts a lot of pressure on people. I certainly felt the pressure on me, I had to suddenly start turning up to skills sessions and booking in time with the skills coaches to work on things.”

He’s a much better player for that than when last playing for England over four years ago. “Everyone always wants to have played a little bit more. If you said to Richie McCaw now, he would probably say, ‘Well, I wouldn’t mind a few more’. I wish when I had started my career I had the understanding of the game that I have now. But ultimately I wouldn’t have had the career that I have if I had had that understanding.

Attwood England

Dave Attwood celebrates England’s 2015 win over Wales with George Ford, Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph (Photo by David Rogers/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

“So I can’t look back remorsefully about it. I loved being involved with England. I learned an awful lot about me, I learned an awful lot about the game, I learned an awful lot about people and that has helped shape who I am and the successes and failures that I have had so far. All of those have been vital in terms of the kind of person I am now.

“I am not just a rugby player but the actual individual I am now, how I speak to other people, how I conduct myself, that is very much a function of those experiences. I would have loved to have played a little more for England, but I’m very proud to have been involved with England as much as I have been.

“To goal-set further down the line is the big one,” he added when asked what he might change if he had his time over again. “As a young player you feel very much like your immediate performance is the most important thing. For example diet and nutrition in later life, I made dramatic changes and shifts to my diet and nutrition.

“That enabled me to live a much more comfortable life and that paid real dividends in terms of the kind of person I was, the amount of enjoyment I got in life and that was reflected in the kind of rugby I was playing. Young players are very much geared towards the very best possible performance this weekend as opposed to maybe a longer term plan that might in the short term inhibit performance but in the long term allow for a lot more growth.”

 

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The Attwood plan is for a legal career when the boots are eventually hung up – he is in his second year of studies at the moment – and he hopes that when he eventually retires from playing the authorities will be pumping more money into degenerative brain conditions, something he hopes can help safeguard the players of future.

“I lost two grandparents to Alzheimer’s and through my education at Bristol University I maintained contact in research departments and a conversation at an alumni dinner piqued my interest. I was 24/25 at the time and the university was looking for a way to involve me as an England international. We married up that I had this interest in degenerative brain conditions and saw there was an opportunity to raise awareness in that field of research and it grew a bit from there. It’s an area that was able to link into rugby.

“There is a cohort of 600 Premiership players that are all fit and healthy, that are all conscious about their diet, they all exercise routinely, they are all monitored daily and have health check-ups – we had this perfect test pool of people to look at and what a perfect opportunity for us to explore.

“I still feel very much like there isn’t enough movement going on. There is enough movement now that the RFU shouldn’t feel threatened by a lawsuit. The RFU are doing enough to cover themselves but there is a potentially huge payoff for this kind of research and I still don’t think there is enough money and enough interest from the wider field in looking at this.

“The Department for Media, Culture and Sport, the Department of Health, both of these significant arms of the Government could be looking at this as a game-changer in terms of reducing mental health issues, reducing the incidences of degenerative brain conditions.

“The drain on the NHS, the number of people that have to deal with this horrific kind of injury, more investment in the research side of it now will pay longer term benefit in reduced outgoings later. Dementia is the biggest drain in NHS funds at the minute.”

 

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'I realised when I went to Toulon I'd been stuck in a rut... I didn't love what I did to get out of bed in the morning'

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