Legendary tighthead Duncan Bell retired from rugby in 2014, but finished an exceptional playing career at Bath Rugby back in 2012. Today he delves into the dark arts of the front row and recalls some fond memories at the Rec.
We have an important news item with which to begin this week’s discussion with a Bath Rugby luminary.
At the request of Mr Duncan Bell, decorated tighthead prop with 207 appearances to his name, proudly bearing the Blue, Black and White, we are to to put a statistic on record, concerning a certain Mr D Flatman. Duncan, the floor is yours, sir.
“For the first time in my career, I now weigh less than David Flatman,” he tells me with evident delight.
“He used to rib me all the time for not being as slim as him, now I’m about 10 kilos lighter than him, so I’m well chuffed with that.”
Let the memo go around the press box, and hopefully the news will make column inches somewhere. Duncan assures me his aspirations for the bombshell are modest:
“The front page of the BBC Sport website would do.”
But there’s more, as Wellington-booted comedian Jimmy Cricket used to say, back in the depths of time when a try was worth a mere four points.
If readers will take a moment to turn to pages 68-69 of our redoubtable issue this afternoon, you will see our regular ‘Moment in Time’ feature contains a collector’s item. Duncan himself, skinning Worcester Warriors fullback Chris Pennell to plunge over in the corner back in 2008 to general delirium, judging from the scenes in the background.
Duncan, talk us through it, old chap!
“I don’t like to talk about it,” he says, modestly.
“Oh go on, let’s talk about it. As I recall, it was from 85 metres out at least, there were a couple of dummies in there, a couple of sidesteps, I chipped over the top and gathered it….the rest is history.”
The joy etched on Duncan’s face is there for all to see. So, however, is another element, which to his great credit, he points out for the less keen-sighted among us today.
“That season, for whatever reason, the shirts had got tighter and tighter. Unfortunately I wasn’t getting smaller and smaller. They used to have the slim fit shirts and what they used to call ‘block’ shirts. I decided I’m not wearing one of these rubbish, tight shirts, so I’ll go with block.
“They got me my match shirts, and I thought they were taking the piss. They weren’t as long as the other shirts. You can just see on that picture, my gut hanging out the bottom. It wasn’t long enough to cover my belly! Wherever I was going, I’d be pulling my bloody shirt down to cover my belly button.”
He can be forgiven a moment of self-consciousness after a lung-busting run from the 22, he says. “When I scored that try in the corner, genuinely, I thought ‘Oh My God, I’ve just run forty yards there, I’ve done it!'
“It wasn’t until I watched the video back that I realised I’d received the ball on the 22! When you’re in my shape mate, 20 yards is like an eternity. A long way away.”
The passion that Duncan has for Bath Rugby is infectious, and born of a lifelong love. He was gripped as a nine year-old, watching from the terraces as the great side of the eighties and nineties swept all before them.
“As a little kid when I was eight or nine years of age I used to play for Bath Minis and used to be on the terraces. I’d pay my 50p every week to come and stand on the terraces and watch the Club play. 50p it was back then!
“Then to play the majority of my career, apart from the last 10 games at the Dragons in 2014, I pretty much started and ended my career at the same club. All I’d ever wanted to do since I was nine was play for Bath, so it was great stuff!”
If you were to hand pick an addiction to rugby and a particular period of watching your club with which to get hooked, then Duncan could have done a lot worse than the glory years here at the Rec.
He says that final followed final, league success on league success and of course the incredible 1998 triumph in Europe topped the lot. Who caught his eye, then, amongst that fantastic crop of players as a lad?
“It was a who’s who of British rugby,” he says with relish. ”The people that stuck out for me, who I always wanted to go and watch, were people like Coochie - Gareth Chilcott - and Richard Lee who I think is one of the best players that Bath ever had, who never really quite got the accolades he deserved, just because he played in the front row.”
Duncan’s own five caps for England might be construed in similar fashion, it occurs, but he doesn’t mention it himself. He continues,
“I loved John Hall. I just thought he was horrible! He was great, I used to love watching him play. He used to maim anything within a five-metre radius. No one messed with him!
“I used to really enjoy Chris Martin, who played at fullback, he didn’t get many caps but he was superb week in, week out for Bath. There were so many names. I could probably reel them all off, but we haven’t got that long!”
To arrive as a player in 2003, hot on the heels of that sensational run of trophies, that dominance, was always going to carry its own burden. His front row partner in crime Mr Mears last week told us precisely the same thing, that Bath were an excellent side during their tenure, but just fell short at the final hurdle, despite the notable Challenge Cup success in 2008.
“It wasn’t just that the game had changed, the sport had changed,” muses Duncan.
“It was always tough playing for Bath with the history that the Club have got. I was very aware of it obviously, being a supporter as a young lad and as a young adult as well, I was acutely aware of the prestige that came with playing for the Club. Everyone knows about that."
“There’s no getting away from the fact that things changed with professionalism, but the Club is steeped in history. A winning history, which is always difficult, no matter who you play for. If a club has got that history then it’s always difficult to step into someone else’s shoes, with the supporters expecting you to be as good, if not better, and expecting you to win more trophies.
“There is an added amount of pressure, but players come to Bath because of that history. I think everyone’s aware of it, it’s just whether you can live up to it or not.”
Born in Norfolk, Duncan is an alumnus of Colston’s School like many Bath legends, and the 41-year-old says that his playing career was marked by the fact that Bath came very close to emulating that success of their predecessors, but couldn’t quite edge out the wins in the several big matches they played.
“Everyone wants to win, that’s why we play the sport. In the big games it comes down to whoever holds their nerve the best and unfortunately in years gone by we couldn’t do that. But that’s not to say there isn’t a trophy around the corner for the current side!
“I came into the Club in 2003, and it's actually been lost in history a little bit, but we finished top of the league by a fair distance. The year before, Bath had missed relegation by the skin of their teeth and people weren’t expecting us to do anything."
There are some painful memories, Duncan admits, despite loving playing alongside the likes of Lee Mears and Jonathan Humphreys. He continues,
“We pretty much walked the league that year. It was a great season to be around, it was just a shame that we lost in the final. We had a certain amount of success, but we kept on losing in finals and semi-finals.
“We lost to Leeds in the Powergen in the final, we lost to the Scarlets at the Millennium Stadium in the semi-final of the European Shield, we lost to Biarritz in a European Cup quarter-final, in a game we should have won. We were always a good team but we never quite got over that hurdle.”
The machinations at the front of the scrummage are the subject of our issue today, and few among us other than members of that elect and secret society, will claim to know a great deal about it. When asked what does a modern tighthead need, Duncan says nothing much has changed at face value,
“A fry-up in the morning, plenty of carbs and no running!”
Joking aside, the scrum has been a focal point for administrators to try and speed up the game, to attract new fans to the sport, and Duncan says at the time he was in his pomp, the constant tinkering was a thorn in the side of every fledgling professional.
His insight is fascinating. In his stint in 2014 at Newport Gwent Dragons, he played under the new rules as well, so his perspective is highly valuable.
“This is only my opinion," he begins. “What they need to do is get a rule, and stick with it, stop mucking about with it. There were changes so often when I was a player, literally every single year, and it was to the detriment of the sport. That is a problem that we’ve got.”
He continues, saying the rules changes have transformed the physical pressure a prop is under.
“It’s a power sport now. You have always had to have technique. If your technique is good, you can get away with things but if you have technique, power and strength, then no one’s going to move you.
“With the new rules it is much more technical. If you don’t have a good technique, you will get found out very quickly, because actually now, what they’ve created with the new rules is a much bigger pressure cooker.
“Because the hit has been taken away, you have 16 blokes in perfect scrum shape, waiting for the ball to come in. All you are creating there is a huge amount of pressure.
“Before, when you used to have the crouch, touch, pause engage, or variations thereof, there were imperfections in technique, and variations because there was momentum and movement. If you move the scrum shape changes. before, that happened on the engagement.
“Because you are limiting the unquantifiables, if you like, you have 16 massive blokes in perfect scrum shape, all as strong as an ox, pushing like hell. That’s just going to create absolute pressure.
The physical ramifications were huge, Duncan contends, and not where you might think.
“It was done with the best of intentions, to try and negate the hit, worrying about people’s necks and shoulders. Actually, having played the game before and after the new rules, there is much more pressure now brought about by the changes in the laws.
“Whenever I used to wake up in the morning after a game, I was like robot, I couldn’t move my neck, my head, I couldn’t look left or right, but with the new rules, my neck was absolutely fine. I wouldn’t have a problem with my neck, it was all my lower back. Under the new rules, you don’t take any pressure on your neck, it all goes through your spine.”
Duncan famously retired with another bombshell, admitting he had suffered bouts of severe depression during his career. His bravery and candour was a revelation, and highlighted a vital issue in the cauldron of elite level professional sport.
Duncan is a busy man at this time of year, with five children: Abigail (14), Jessica (11), Kayleigh (9), Ethan (6) and little 15-month-old Zander. “Carnage!” he says with evident pride. "I’m a third of the way to my own rugby team.”
Now working as a mortgage and insurance executive at Chartwell Funding, Duncan says life is good. Talking about his depression was a huge catharsis, and he says has proved a boon to other professional players in the same plight.
“I’m all good. It was liberating getting all that off my chest when I retired. It’s so strange. In fact, the other day, I spoke to another ex-player who had to retire and I hadn’t seen him in two or three years. He said that he’d been in a similar position to me and never said anything.
“It’s not just him. Since I came out with that article, there have been double figures in players who have come up to me and said they also have struggled with it.
“It is something that’s been managed now with the RPA and clubs as well. It’s still a hidden epidemic in my eyes. It seems to happen when players retire or are approaching retirement age, I think it’s prevalent within the industry. It’s something that needs be addressed and we need to educate about.
“I have no problem talking about it whatsoever. Am I okay? Yeah, I’m absolutely fine. I have my good days and bad days like anybody else, it’s monitored and I know where I am as a person.”
Duncan’s bravery on the field is more than matched by his courage and commitment to life off it. We can learn a great deal from his experience, and here’s hoping many readers will choose to join him in the Swift Half this afternoon, and avail of his wisdom.
Interview by Patrick J.Lennon
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