After announcing his retirement this week, Andy Titterrell reflects on his career and how the game has changed since his debut.
Andy Titterrell does not want for grit. Like many elite players, he overcame a string of setbacks to reach the pinnacle of his sport. Standing at 5'8, he was told time and again he was too short for a modern hooker, too small to cope with professional rugby. He knew he had to work that much harder, run that much faster, scrummage that bit lower than his rivals; and his tackle technique had to be perfect every time he lined up an opponent who was inevitably bigger, heavier and stronger, or in his own words, he'd end up "in a crumpled heap on the floor".
Listening to former team-mates and coaches, the same words appear over and over: committed, professional, role model. This was a man who, for over fifteen years, had dedicated every aspect of his life to rugby. He gave up drinking in his early twenties while other players frequented bars and nightclubs - "if I wanted to go somewhere with rugby, alcohol had to go," he says. If he felt lacking in some way, or worse underprepared, he'd pitch up for extra solo training sessions on his days off, working on analysis, fitness or rehabilitation. He terms these "investments in myself", sacrifices to get to the top. It's the sort of stuff coaches wish they could they could bottle up and pour down the necks of every player in their squads; and Titterrell has it in spades.
But his world was, quite literally, brought crashing to earth less than three months ago. During a chilly November afternoon, he packed down for a scrum for current club London Welsh against Bristol as he had done thousands, perhaps millions, of times before, and as is often the case the front-rows folded inwards and collapsed on engagement. It's perhaps rugby's chief eyesore, but as frustrated onlookers, we tend to forget it is the heads, necks and spines of the six forefront players that bear the brunt of the impact.
"I had a shooting pain through my scapula (shoulder blade)," confirmed Titterrell.
"I just thought I'd pulled a muscle and carried on playing as rugby players do. I went for a scan, and it showed I had a prolapsed disc quite far down my upper spine. I saw a surgeon down in Bristol to get his opinion, because I just wasn't getting any better.
"If I flexed my neck, I'd have pains all down my arm. It was very sore, and though certain movements were ok, I couldn't sleep properly. I went for a follow-up with the surgeon just after New Year, and he flared up all the symptoms down my arm just by putting a little pressure on my head.
"I was sat there at the time and it was like he was just talking at me; he was saying he was going to have to medically retire me. It all just flashed before my eyes."
A brief glance at Titterrell's bulging biceps, or indeed his Twitter timeline packed with video clips of power-lifts and gym work, testifies that this was not a man preparing to don slippers and take on the role of house-husband.
"I was in great shape, doing extra weightlifting and conditioning sessions as like before," added Titterrell.
"To finish under these circumstances is gut-wrenching. I never wanted to be told I had to finish because of an injury. I think, even if I'd been getting knocks every week and feeling sore, I would have soldiered on, strapped myself up and got on with it.
"I would never have retired myself - the only way I'd have been finished other than an injury like this would have been not getting another contract."
As I sit down and listen to him reflect on his career for over an hour, he can point to a Premiership winner's medal, a handful of England caps, a British and Irish Lions tour, and successful spells at some of the country's top clubs as penance for his graft. He is unable to pick out just one highlight.
"I'd give it all back and start over again if I could," he beams.
We pore over his Premiership debut with Sale Sharks aged just 19, his first England cap on a punishing tour of New Zealand nearly a decade ago, and a surprise call-up to Sir Clive Woodward's 2005 Lions tour party the hooker loved every minute of despite the controversy and Test hammerings for which it is best remembered.
Then there's the forty-point mauling the Sharks dished out to Leicester Tigers in the 2006 Premiership Final, inspired by boss Kingsley Jones' dressing room team talk. Following on from Sale, a frustrating time at Gloucester as a knee injury saw him spiral into depression and self-doubt, and an odd spell in Scotland's capital where Titterrell felt politics and bureaucracy from above often governed selection.
His pro career began at a time when brawn and bulk were less valued than they are now; gym work was less focussed or frequent, and hookers did what they said on the tin. This season, concerns over player welfare have rocketed. An alarming number of players have been forced to retire early through injuries; rugby's attrition rate continues to rise in line with its modern, beefed-up image. The old adage that rugby is "a game for all shapes and sizes" now faces stiff opposition via the muscle-bound behemoths that comprise most elite squads.
"Physically, the game's changed," stated Titterrell.
"When I started playing, we had one conditioner to a squad of 35-40 players. The attention to detail wasn't like it is now.
"I do think now that players can get obsessed with the gym in a bad way. They value aesthetics over rugby performance. Rugby's built on strength, power and speed, it's not built on hypertrophy (although it does have its place) or biceps inches.
"It's a sport that will never lose its collision aspect - we all have to work harder now because of the injuries.
"Ultimately, it's how you perform that gets you a contract. You're judged on what you do on the field, not what you shift in the gym. You can be a fantastic athlete in the gym and play like a bag of cr*p."
"But I think smaller players are still able to make the grade," he continued.
"Rugby's built for guys that are short, tall, thin, heavy, light - that's the exciting thing about it. Because of the lifestyle and what's around us as players today, guys do gym work much more than they did ten years ago.
"But if they put all their efforts into training in the gym, and getting bigger and stronger, they need to be able to transfer that onto the field."
We move on to talk more about scrummaging - a topic Titterrell is happy to discuss for hours - and the changing face of the set-piece, but inevitably, we end up back at the cold, hard reality the 33-year-old's is faced with, and question that has to follow: what next?
Many players struggle post-retirement, bereft of the routine that has defined their lives for years, and fall down a dangerous path to mental illness. Titterrell's demons were banished long ago, but he is determined to maintain his passion for rugby, and is currently working on a Master's degree in Strength and Conditioning.
"It will take time to get used to not being involved in that routine," admitted Titterrell.
"I want to get back in the game as quickly as I can, I don't want to be out of the game. I don't think taking time off will do me any good - I've had a couple of weeks off already and I've hated it, even though I love spending more time with my family, doing the school run with my boys.
"Rugby's been part of my life; it's given me everything I've ever wanted and more over a short period of time. I've met some incredible people. But I've got no idea how long it will take me to come to terms with it.
"The injury happened in November, but since then I've been back in around the club, completing rehab, helping coach the forwards coaching, and analysis.
"But when my retirement was announced on Monday, it brought everything back. It made things final. I've been overwhelmed by the responses and tributes on Twitter, I'm so grateful for that. When I was asked about it on Monday, I didn't speak very well because I had such a lump in my throat. In time, it'll get better, I'm sure. But hopefully by then I'll be back in the game."
By Jamie Lyall