THE WORST moment for Dave Attwood over these past few months wasn’t when he heard he had received a nine-week ban for stamping on the head of La Rochelle prop Petrisor Toderasc, a ban that cost him a place in England’s elite squad.

That may seem bad enough for a 23-year-old lock who impressed the England management last summer on tour in Australia, made his Test debut against New Zealand in November and may well have been starting in the Six Nations with Courtney Lawes injured.

But it pales into insignificance compared to hearing that the Romanian prop not only required hospital treatment after losing two teeth and fracturing a cheekbone but, for a short while, was in danger of losing the sight in his damaged eye. Suddenly rugby itself became worthless. “I felt totally sick when I was told it could happen,” Attwood reveals. “A million things went through my mind but the main thought, apart from praying Petrisor would be okay, was that I couldn’t see how I’d be able to play rugby again. I wanted to disappear. I couldn’t understand how I’d done it. I was full of remorse.”

Attwood had been cited after stamping on the prop during an Amlin Challenge Cup tie in December. “I’d offloaded to Nick Wood and was about to support him, an area of play I’ve been working hard on, but Petrisor held me back off the ball and for a split-second I lost it.”

As Toderasc was removed from the field and taken to hospital, Attwood apologised to him and, later, to his angry team-mates. “When I saw the damage I’d done my first thought was how on earth it could have happened, and then horror at my actions. That’s why I was at pains to say sorry to him, and why subsequently I also contacted the club. Everyone in the game knows I’m not a dirty player. Or at least knew.”

He was also cited for stamping when playing for England against the Australian Barbarians last June. He was exonerated on a technicality but it remains a black mark against him. “The problem was I never had the chance to clear myself properly in a hearing, which we were all confident I’d be able to do. So, even though I was found not guilty, it’s there, isn’t it?”

There was no doubt about this offence. Attwood pleaded guilty and was hit hard by ERC, then Martin Johnson threw him out of the elite squad as there was little point including a man who would be banned for the first two Six Nations Tests and not match-fit for a third. “It’s been difficult being a fit, professional sportsman stopped from doing what he loves the most and is paid to do. To be entirely responsible for missing games is very frustrating. With Courtney out for the Six Nations, I’d have had a good chance of featuring. I only have myself to blame. I haven’t done myself any favours in World Cup year.”

At home with girlfriend Bridget Whelan, there’s little respite. “She’s been supportive but has also been on my back, and rightly so. When I faced the possibility I might have blinded a fellow player I found it difficult even thinking about telling her. We’ve talked about why I did it, what I was going to do. In fact, she hardly shuts up about it, which is how it should be. It’s not something I can just brush under the carpet.”

Quite. To be fair to Attwood he’s hard at work addressing the issue to ensure there is no repeat. “Look, I’m fully aware that I’m in danger of gaining myself an unwanted reputation that’ll lead to refs looking at me, and opposing players testing me. I have to work very hard now on guaranteeing to the rugby world, and to myself, that I never repeat such actions. I never meant to hurt Petrisor. It wasn’t premeditated. It was a split-second reaction and the key now is to prepare for such eventualities, and to learn how to alter my reaction to provocation.

“I’ve been talking to Carl Hogg, the Gloucester forwards coach who does a lot of psychology, and spending time with sports psychologists I know from my Bristol University days. I’m hoping that the thought of blinding someone, let alone the punishment meted out, is enough to ensure it never happens again, but I’m not leaving it to chance.”

There is one positive. Attwood has had a mid-season, nine-week break which should ensure he’s now fresh, injury-free, fit and strong as the World Cup looms. And the fact that he was still asked to train with England in their pre-Six Nations camp in Portugal suggests that Johnson hasn’t exactly exiled the lock, either.

“I have to make the most of the situation I find myself in,” Attwood admits. “That means returning to the game fresh and hungry. It’s been a long year, what with the summer tour, and if I can still make it into the World Cup squad it will continue to be a long year, so this might do me a favour long term. I’m hoping I might still get some kind of opportunity in the Six Nations but we’ll have to see.”

Attwood also made the news by signing for Bath on a two-year deal – “There are amazing things going on there and it’s a great chance to develop the brand of rugby I can play” – but first he must do right by Gloucester and England. “Right now I’m happy Petrisor’s okay and that I’m working hard to improve myself. I know I’ve ground to catch up in every department but that’s exactly what I intend to do.”

This article appeared in the April 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine

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