Mark Durden-Smith and David Flatman's rugby double act may no longer be present on our television screens, but their book of jibes and jocularity hits all the right notes
Charmed by Posh and Pecs
One of David Flatman’s earliest rugby viewing experiences was watching England play Ireland at Twickenham in the old Five Nations.
“I could be imagining this but I’m pretty sure we sat on wooden seats that day,” says the former England prop turned media pundit. “Something I’m a lot surer of seeing happen is Rory Underwood score on the left wing just beneath us and me and my dad going wild. I could evoke that memory a hundred times a day and it would still make the hairs on my palms stand on end. That’s what the Six Nations means to me.”
That narrows it down to 1988, 1990 or 1992 because Underwood scored in the fixture in each of those years at Twickenham.
Flatman’s recollection appears in Flats and Durders Offload, the book released this season that is sure to interest the rugby judges at the Telegraph Sports Book Awards. The publicity puff correctly calls it “a brilliant combination of in-depth knowledge and hilarious stories” and if you haven’t read it then we advise you to rectify that.
Flatman and Mark Durden-Smith used to present the Gallagher Premiership highlights show on Channel 5 until it was bizarrely axed last year. Their breezy patter made the show worth watching even if you had already seen the highlights. The Guardian’s rugby writer Rob Kitson called them the Ant and Dec of rugby, although Durden-Smith feels Kermit and Miss Piggy is a more accurate analogy.
The highlights are back now on ITV, minus Durden-Smith. With the greatest respect to the new show, we are missing the buddy banter of old.
Their book is presented in the style of a conversation in which all manner of topics are covered. The likes of tours, nutrition and heroes and villains mingle with the grass roots, academies and future of the game, but the chat rarely strays into the “serious and gloomy” territory that Flatman feels undermines many a rugby book.
In exploring so many subjects, you get a sense of discovery even between the two friends. For example, Flatman could have played for Wales because his mum was born in Pontypool or Scotland through his grandfather. He rejected the chance to join Leicester, which led to Marcus Ayerza becoming a Tiger.
He recalls occasions when he was put through the mill – Darren Garforth gave him his hardest day, when Flatman was a pup of 18. And days when everything seemed perfect, such as a brilliant performance against Toulouse or the time he set up a winning try for Phil Christophers after sidestepping his favourite prop, Omar Hasan, against Argentina.
It’s sad to hear how difficult Flatman found life after he retired, how demotivated he was during his spell as head of communications at Bath. He admits that had he been more aware of mental health issues, he would have sought help.
“I’d have told them that I don’t feel fulfilled by the job I’m doing and that I can’t understand why I’m not enjoying being the parent of two young babies,” he writes. “I’d also have asked why I felt so stressed all the time and why I always assumed that everything I was doing was wrong. I couldn’t see the good in anything or anyone at the time, least of all me.”
It was his TV work that saved him and what a master he is at it, with his witty observations going hand in hand with a sharp analytical brain.
He was working on the sidelines during the 2019 World Cup final and halfway through the first half pressed the button to speak to the director. He explained that he wanted to tell viewers that Joe Marler needed to replace Mako Vunipola immediately (such was South African’s scrum dominance) but the director passed up the opportunity.
Marler finally came on for the last 25 minutes and England turned the tide in the set-piece. “The difference was Joe. Mako was unable to keep the South African tighthead engaged on him, so he just steamed past him and across onto Jamie George. That made it three on two, with all the weight going onto Dan Cole and Mako effectively spat out to the side.”
Flatman tells some stonking stories in the book, pride of place going to his ‘Johannesburg Three’ escapade on the 2000 England tour and a France A away match when absolutely everything that could go wrong did.
His talent took him to the heights of the game whereas Durden-Smith’s crowning glory was being mentioned in a Telegraph report during his spell as full-back for Durham University. “The report might even have featured the words ‘lightning fast’ to describe my movement on the pitch. I was never anything but deceptively slow – that was my genius,” he says.
In rugby-playing terms, there were more brickbats than plaudits for the man who once addressed the Queen’s grandson as Prince Hairy at the Sports Industry Awards. He dropped the ball behind his posts playing for Durham’s third team and effectively cost them a long-awaited place in a cup final. Even more mortifying was a kick he took as a schoolboy in front of the posts that would have given Radley their first win at Wellington College in 11 years.
“The grass was so long I could only see the top third of the ball. I should have done something about that but that’s how Jonathan Webb did it, I thought, so it’s good enough for me. I kicked the ball at its highest peak and sent it skimming along the grass. The humiliation!”
‘Posh and Pecs’ is another term that has been used to describe the duo and Durden-Smith, the son of Judith Chalmers and Neil Durden-Smith, fits his half of the tag.
He went to watch England games from the age of eight, devouring garlic chicken drumsticks in the west car park. He recalls the crowd going crazy after Ben Clarke caught a restart above his head and watching to see if the superstitious Irishman Ollie Campbell stood on a white line. He worshipped Webb and had room in his heart to obsess about Peter Winterbottom.
Having married a Welsh woman, his family has divided loyalties. Wife Rachel and his twin boys, Archie and Freddie, support Wales while he and daughter Rosie support England (“essentially because she went through a phase of fancying Owen Farrell”).
Durden-Smith also has many a tale to tell, of which none is more flabbergasting than the time he slipped partially into a bubbling geyser in New Zealand. Not realising the ramifications of dunking his lower legs in boiling sulphuric water, he was rescued by a fellow sightseer who whisked him to the toilets and ordered him to strip and put his feet in cold water.
With skin flapping around his ankles, he was rushed off to hospital and spent almost a month in Rotorua General Hospital. Some gap year.
It is that sort of book, a jaunty read spliced with moments that shock. You are captivated at every turn and a healthy irreverence permeates the pages.
We started on the Six Nations, so let’s finish on the championship too. “Nobody should be locked into the tournament and nobody should be safe,” says Flatman. “Whoever finishes sixth should have a play-off against the next best country and if that country wins they become the sixth nation.
“For me, Italy have been treading water for almost 20 years. They just haven’t progressed. How much of that is down to the fact they’re guaranteed a place in the Six Nations I’m not sure. What’s clearer is that by having a glass ceiling above the nations just behind Italy, such as Georgia, you’re preventing them from investing enough to progress to the next level.”
Flats and Durders Offload is published by Simon & Schuster, RRP £20.
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