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RUGBYPASS+ The elephant in the room

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The elephant in the room

Once upon a time, I spent a sun-kissed seven days in Mykonos with Miss Right. You may have bumped into her yourself in a previous life; elegant, intelligent, a ‘Tatler’ smile, an almost ambrosial aura and – let’s not mince words here – foxy. I’ve no idea what Miss Right made of me but no matter; two months’ of heavy dating and I was smitten enough for the both of us. 

Except that a week of sharing one superior, double-bedded room in Megali Ammos with catch-your-breath views of the endless Aegean killed the relationship stone dead. She couldn’t sleep with the windows open; she’d forgotten to pack her favourite moisturiser; she ruthlessly annexed the only cupboard; she screamed at passing mosquitos; she read the hotel evacuation procedure out loud on our first evening and, after every sobbing sunset, she left the day’s underwear soaking overnight in the sink. If she’d been having an affair with my brother, I’d have been more forgiving. 

You mention this because you’ve always wondered how is it rugby teams ever win on the road or on tour when players spend the previous night sharing hotel rooms with other players. Yes, they’re all mates – blood brothers and all that – but there’s little in life that prepares you for apportioning half your hallowed, personal space to some wannabe derelict with strident foot odour who screams in his sleep. Think of your own workplace. How many of your colleagues would you cheerfully shack up with in a flea-bitten flophouse somewhere near Manchester Airport when the following day promised nothing more enticing than Manu Tuilagi running hard lines on your inside shoulder? Well, precisely. 

Mark Andrews, a redoubtable Springbok of a bygone era, spent four years on the road sharing with another redoubtable Springbok of a bygone era – best, perhaps, that he remains nameless – and it’s a miracle Andrews survived to tell the tale. Once, Mark woke in the dead of night to find his mate screaming at him to get out of the room, this while standing naked on his bed trying to hold up the wall which he was convinced was about to fall in. There was also the time he tried to strangle the lamp-shade at two in the morning, not forgetting the occasion when Andrews was dragged from his bed onto the floor – this, again, in the wee, small hours – because his bedtime buddy thought the red light on the television was a laser sight from a sniper’s rifle. ‘Apart from all that, though,’ said Mark, cheerfully, ‘he was a great room-mate.’

Flats, you need to shut the hell up during the night. When you go for a pee, you pee straight into the water. Don’t pee in the water, pee down the side. Twice you woke me up.

Certainly, there are times when it can feel as though you’re living with a gas leak but more commonly, as David Flatman deftly puts it, ‘it’s the little things that annoy big men’, such as bathroom towels that are the consistency of moss because your ‘mate’ got to the shower first and used all four. ‘I once roomed with Julian White and he grabbed me at breakfast the next morning and said: ‘Flats, you need to shut the hell up during the night’. I said, what? He said: ‘When you go for a pee, you pee straight into the water. Don’t pee in the water, pee down the side. Twice you woke me up. In fact, just stop drinking bloody water all evening, will you?’’

Interrupted sleep patterns are, inevitably, the big bugbear, the more so if – as many honest professionals are – you’re anxious about the next day’s game and need your shuteye. ‘Snoring’s the thing,’ says Scott Quinnell. ‘The other stuff isn’t too bad: if they stink, you can throw them in the shower; if they smoke, you can hang them out the window and if they’re late back, you just lock the door. But sharing with a snorer’s impossible.’

‘Yup, snoring, every time,’ says Worcester Warriors’ Matt Garvey. ‘You either try to get to sleep first or you keep some weapons of choice by the bed which you can just launch in the middle of the night.’ Indeed, at lights out, SQ used to stockpile an arsenal of shoes for just such a purpose. ‘You’d start with the soft ones – flip-flops, trainers, that sort of thing – then maybe move onto a brogue or two and finally you just unload boots with the longest studs.’ 

But there are times when even that doesn’t work. ‘Big Ryan Caldwell was a nightmare at Ulster,’ says Ireland’s Stephen Ferris. ‘He could barely breathe through his mouth let alone his nose and, I tell you, once he was asleep, Mike Tyson couldn’t have woken him up. So I just slunk off to the bath with my pillow and duvet and played the Ospreys the next day on two hours’ kip. It was tough going.’

Once on a pre-season tour, Garvey ended up marching down to the hotel reception, grabbing the key to the team room and bunking down on the physio’s couch. Scott Quinnell remembers a Wales tour in Argentina where folk were lugging mattresses and bedding into hotel corridors in the dead of night to try to escape from whichever elephant was in the room. ‘The only way to deal with it,’ says SQ, ‘is to develop a snore of your own so no one wants to share with you. Either that or become captain and get your own space.’

Munster v Ulster - Heineken Cup Quarter Final
Stephen Ferris was a stalwart of Ulster rugby (Getty Images)

And if it’s not one end, it’s the other. ‘Flatulence,’ says Ferris. ‘That’s my real pet hate. I shared once with a prop at Ulster and it was like living with a camel. He’d come in at eleven at night with a fillet steak and a carbonara pasta, stuff his face and fall asleep; trust me, the noises that came out of that man were indescribable. Modern hotels now you can’t even open a window, so the stink was circulating all night.’

Flatulent snorers aside, the key to sharing seems to be laying down markers early. ‘When you get off the coach, get to the room first because possession is nine-tenths of the law,’ says Garvey. ‘Claim your side of the room and mark out your territory any way you can. The armchair in the corner is vital. Empty your kitbag all over it. And always grab the best bed, mess it up, even lie on it naked if you have to. It’s the law of jungle. Is the other guy going to come in and try to claim the better bed if you’re lying on it in the buff after four, sweaty hours on the bus? ‘No, you win that one, mate, well played’. Last resort, pee on the duvet.’

Size and seniority are often the trump cards if bagging the best bed turns into a heated haggle. ‘So if I was rooming with Johnno (Martin Johnson), he gets the bigger bed because he’s twice my size,’ says Flatman. ‘Mind you, if I’m in with Jason Robinson, he gets the bigger bed because he’s Jason Robinson. In terms of controlling the room, though, the TV remote’s where it’s at. I can’t deal with reality TV but I roomed for ages with Danny Grewcock and he loved ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ and all that rubbish, so it was always a race for the remote. I remember hiding it under a pillow before we went down for dinner and when we came back they’d bloody turned down our beds and put the remote on the table. These are the technicalities you learn; in other words, back it up with a ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ on the door.’ 

But opposites, contrary to what you may imagine, can and often do attract. ‘My first ever Barbarians buddy was Neil Back,’ says Quinnell. ‘I arrived in the room and plonked two bottles of beer on the table; he came in with two protein shakes. We got on like a house on fire. And the trouble is, if you do put two neat freaks together and they ‘neat’ differently, it can be carnage. Sometimes it’s better to have someone completely different.’

Whenever we were on the road, Bestie would be making calls about the farm, ordering red diesel or sorting out this and that. So now, if I ever felt the urge to buy a combine harvester, I’d know exactly what to look for.

And, on that point, sharing can very often be an education. ‘I roomed a lot with Bestie (former Ireland captain and farmer Rory Best),’ says  Ferris. ‘And whenever we were on the road, he’d be making calls about the farm, you know, ordering red diesel or sorting out this and that. So now, if I ever felt the urge to buy a combine harvester, I’d know exactly what to look for.’

Team managers generally draw up the rooming lists and, bribery apart, there is some science to it. ‘When you’re in camp, you’re happy to mix it up,’ says Garvey. ‘But the night before a game you need familiarity; the same room-mate, someone you’re comfortable with, not just because you know what’s best for yourself but what’s best for your team-mate too.’ 

Ferris agrees. ‘A lot more consideration is given to rooming lists than used to be the case,’ he says. ‘Obviously, the matchday 23 on a big tour need to share because the other lads might not be – shall we say – as professional in that week as the others but the last thing you want is two personalities clashing and not getting the best out of each other. Bear in mind too, you don’t always love everyone you play with; you know, nothing in common and a room full of polite small-talk. Not great.’

Certainly, the guy everyone’s after isn’t necessarily a doppelgänger, just someone who can read the room. ‘I was chucked in once with Scott Bemand,’ says Flatman. ‘Remember Scott? Scrum-half? Brilliant bloke. We had the best time; stitch-ups, laughs, he was relentlessly energetic but then at eight o’clock it’d be, right, silence; time to shut up and watch telly and, by the way, how do you like your tea in the morning? Exactly what you want. The best.’

‘That’s it,’ says Garvey. ‘One-hundred percent, I couldn’t agree more. It’s that intuitive understanding; I want to sleep, he wants to natter, so he heads off outside and makes himself scarce. Reading the room is exactly it. That’s what you’re looking for.’

Quinnell thinks much the same. ‘Mind you,’ he says, ‘you do need a bloke who likes the same films as you. Night before a game, you want to be watching ‘Mad Max’ or ‘Highlander’ not ‘Love, Actually’ but, then, that can leave you spending two hours in front of something neither of you really wanted to see. It’s a bit like being at home with the wife.’

Bath Rugby v Harlequins - Gallagher Premiership Rugby
Matt Garvey formed a close bond with Ross Batty, scoring against Harlequins, as a fun-loving roommate (Getty Images)

Interestingly, the rules of rooming appear to be largely unwritten, save one. ‘Bathroom-wise, always make your larger deposits in someone else’s toilet,’ says Flatman. ‘You know, amble in next-door, make a bit of chit-chat, distract them, nick some biscuits and then make a dive for the bathroom and, bang, lock the door. But then you’ve got to be prepared for counter-attacks. Clive Woodward had a compulsory open-door policy with England which Trevor Woodman completely ignored. ‘Trev, open-door, mate,’ I’d say. ‘Yeah’, he says, ‘but do you want other people crapping in the bog all night? Besides, what if Mark ‘Ronnie’ Regan’s wandering about looking for someone to talk to?’ I said: ‘Good point’ and we locked the door.’ 

Apart from the bathroom fly-tippers, it’s the tag-team pranksters who’re always best avoided. ‘My regular roomie at Bath was Ross Batty’, says Garvey. ‘And we’d nick stuff off people – just little things really, nothing heavy – invite them round to our room to beg for them back and then dive in; you know, snare them in a duvet, steal all their clothes and throw them out into the corridor. Immature, I know, but we thought it made a statement.’

The trouble being, of course, that the hunters can quickly become the hunted. ‘Dwayne Peel and Stephen Jones were terrible wind-up merchants,’ says Quinnell. ‘So they were away with Wales – New Zealand I think it was – and one of the guys they’d played a trick on – might’ve been Mark Jones – managed to get a sheep into their room when they weren’t there. They came back to find the sheep had gone to the toilet everywhere, wiped its bottom on the curtains and eaten most of their room.’

And the thing about prankster gangsters is they invariably have a habit of over-reaching themselves. Batty and Garvey finally met their Waterloo when, bored of mugging low-hanging fruit such as Guy Mercer and George Ford, they tried to take down Semesa Rokoduguni, a Royal Scots Dragoon Guard who served in Afghanistan. ‘Look, I know it was stupid but you’ve gotta aim high, haven’t you?’ says Garvey. ‘And, of course, Roko wallpapered the room with the pair of us. The bleeding wasn’t too bad but that man knows all the pressure points in the human body. Let’s just say the internal injuries are probably still there and the mental scars will definitely never heal. It was a shame, though, because if we’d got Roko, we could’ve got anyone, couldn’t we? Lesson learned.’

Richie McCaw had this habit of making slurping, kiss-your-teeth, thirsty noises which was Willi’s cue to make him a cup of tea. And he cheerfully did, as you would.

The one other unwritten rule is what happens in the room stays in the room, exceptions being made for the flatulent, the fraudulent and the foot-fetishers. But there are times when the room becomes more of a confessional – problems at home, injuries, contract issues – and that’s when real bonds are born. ‘Some people use conversation in the room to get stuff off their chest,’ says Ferris. ‘There is therapy, definitely; you get to know people a lot more when you room with them and if you know them well, you tend to trust them a lot more.’ Garvey agrees. ‘There are times when you realise how vulnerable players can be; you’ve got this Alpha-male, macho bloke who suddenly just opens up to you. You see a different side of people. It can be a bit humbling but it’s just a case of how can I help or do I just listen and catch up later in the week?’ 

Interestingly, it seems it’s some of rugby’s Mount Rushmore types who turn out to be the best unpaid therapists. ‘Big Lol (Lawrence Dallaglio) was brilliant to room with,’ says Flatman. ‘Always listening, always helpful. Kyran Bracken too. And you could tell Johnno anything because you knew it’d not only never leave the room but he’d probably say seven to ten words at the end and solve your problem for you.’

Sharing with rugby’s aristocracy, though, can be a daunting experience. Do you shoot the breeze, steal his socks or ask him for his autograph? ’Back in New Zealand when he was with the Crusaders, Willi Heinz shared a few times with Richie McCaw,’ says Garvey. ‘Brilliant experience, obviously – an honour almost – but, apparently, Richie had this habit of making slurping, kiss-your-teeth, thirsty noises which was Willi’s cue to make him a cup of tea. And he cheerfully did, as you would. We try the same thing with him at Worcester now but, strangely, it doesn’t seem to work.’

Rugby Union - Launch of the Lloyds TSB <a href=
Six Nations Championship 2001 – Hurlingham Club, London” width=”1920″ height=”1279″ /> Scott Quinnell (left) and Keith Wood (centre) enjoyed each other’s company as British and Irish Lions roommates (Getty Images)

Unquestionably, looking after your roomie is important. ‘I shared a lot on the 2001 Lions with Keith Wood,’ says Quinnell, ‘and he spent hours writing stuff – novel, newspaper columns, I’ve no idea what – so I spent most of that tour bringing him cups of tea and making sure his pencils were sharp.’ Often, though, it just comes down to nudging your mate awake if he’s about to miss a meeting or making sure he’s got the right kit for training. ‘I roomed a fair bit with Davie Wilson,’ says Flatman. ‘Class guy; one of life’s proper solid blokes but he never had a clue what was going on. So he’d be: ‘Flats, don’t forget, mate, red jerseys at training tomorrow; you’ve got your red jersey out the laundry, yeah, nice one’ and I’d check tomorrow’s schedule and it’d say ‘blue jersey’. I mean it was red or blue, that was all there was and he was wrong every day. Seriously, how can you not love a bloke like that?’

But it’s often the tiniest, most intimate things that reveal the most. ‘I remember sharing with Matt Dawson on a Lions tour,’ says Quinnell. ‘And you could always tell the quality of person because you’d turn the light off and say, ‘Night, night, Daws’ and he’d always say, ‘Night, night, Q’. So if you were in with someone and you got nothing back at bedtime, you’d think, all right then, you’re one of them.’

Better even than that, Batty and Garvey used to have pet names for each other. ‘I called him ‘Treacle’ and he called me ‘Tap End’ because he reckoned he was the Alpha-male and if we’d ever shared a bath – which, I assure you, we didn’t – I’d be at the tap end,’ says Matt. ‘So he’d always say, ‘Night, night, Tap End’ and I’d say, ‘Night, Treacle’ and all would be good. Bit like being married really.’

So what, in summary, is the identikit, ideal roomie when you’re out on the rugby road? ‘I’d say a silent sleeper who lies in all morning and who’s on top of the daily schedule,’ says Ferris. ‘Yup, a sloth who can make a perfect cup of tea’, says Quinnell. Garvey considers this one carefully. ‘All I’m after is a bloke with snacks, some decent banter and who’ll watch my back. That’ll do.’ And Flatman? ’Well, all of that, I suppose,’ he says. ‘Someone who’s got the timings off pat, makes the tea and knows when to leave me alone. My mother, basically. She’d be perfect.’

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