Only 80 minutes separate Dave Attwood from a possible Twickenham final. RW talks to the Bristol lock about flying Bears and defending team-mates in disciplinary hearings
Dave Attwood – Bristol’s legal eagle
Dave Attwood must be classed as a veteran these days but, more than a decade after making his England debut, the 34-year-old second-row is playing as well as ever. His Bristol team demands exacting fitness levels and skill execution but Attwood has met the challenge.
The Bears topped the Gallagher Premiership at the end of the regular season and he is confident they can go on to win their first English title, stage one of which is this weekend’s semi-final against Harlequins at Ashton Gate.
Attwood is preparing for his post-rugby life by studying law at university and, unusually, he has been using his newly acquired legal knowledge to defend team-mates in disciplinary hearings. We spoke to him about that intriguing sideline, as well as about playing for the Bears, for a feature that was published in our June 2021 issue…
Disciplinary hearings used to be a sporadic irritation for club bosses. Nowadays, you better be primed for combat in the courtroom. Pat Lam has seen three of his Bristol players summoned by the beak in recent months but fortunately he didn’t have to look far for legal representation. Dave Attwood, an aspiring solicitor advocate, is currently supplementing his outstanding work in the second row with some vigorous defence in RFU tribunals.
Siale Piutau, Kyle Sinckler and Sam Bedlow have been the three beneficiaries and, if RW’s interview with Attwood is anything to go by, they couldn’t have a more diligent counsel. The former England lock, studying part-time at university for a law diploma, is even employing his own lecturers to keep on top of his legal studies. On Thursdays and Fridays, he has a two-hour session at 5am with a Sinhalese teacher in Sri Lanka. He’s also doing a couple of hours a week with a London-based graduate on European law.
Representing rugby team-mates is a way to gain experience and it goes down well with the RFU, who are not well disposed to high-powered briefs throwing their weight around in a rugby setting. “They’re more concerned about the spirit of these incidents than the specific terminology of the framework,” explains Attwood.
“So if you’re trying to wriggle out of the incident on a technicality, they can see that happening. If you say, ‘I know I tipped him upside down and he landed on his head and broke his neck but he had his laces undone, so I shouldn’t be culpable’, they can see that’s baloney. So it’s important that players have candour.”
It helps that Attwood is at the coalface. So much so that when Sinckler committed his offence at Exeter in January, Attwood was practically standing next to him. “So I was able to convey to the judiciary panel the emotion and the intent and the actual events as they unfolded.”
We discuss Sinckler’s case in depth. The England prop was cited for ‘failing to respect the authority of the match official’ after a no-arms tackle on him by Luke Cowan-Dickie. Or to be more specific, after initially saying “Are you kidding?” when Karl Dickson chose not to penalise the tackler, he repeated the sentiment with some added profanity.
That’s the nub of it but delve deeper and you discover that the incident was similar to one that a few years ago caused Sinckler a season-ending injury. And that perhaps Exeter players had wound him up a little. And that maybe we wouldn’t have even heard the swearing at all if it wasn’t for the absence of a noisy crowd.
“To write events down on paper can seem very black and white but actually what we’re dealing with is an awful lot of grey,” explains Attwood. That is demonstrated by the huge number of times he utters the word ‘but’ in our conversation – there invariably seems to be a flip side to every point made.
Sinckler received a two-week ban, a week less than Bedlow for his tip tackle on London Irish’s Theo Brophy-Clews. “It’s important for the (charged) player to show remorse. And one of the things they raised with Sam was that it didn’t appear he was sorry about it, he didn’t go and apologise,” says Attwood, switching his attention to his most recent hearing.
“But first, Sam made a public Twitter apology afterwards and second, he didn’t injure him. Play carried on for another seven or eight phases and Sam actually tackled the same guy a further two times. At the first of those contacts he said to him while they were on the floor together, ‘Sorry about that, are you alright?’
“That’s obviously not visible or audible to the judiciary panel, so those are the kind of things we can extract from Sam during the hearing to convey things the panel weren’t aware of.”
We chat about the importance of players choosing their words carefully, avoiding terms that can be taken out of context. We touch on the nervousness that players often feel, like do you call the tribunal chairman ‘sir’ or ‘your honour’? We don’t get around to discussing the biscuits on offer, something made famous when Brendan Venter was rebuked for eating one with ‘a certain disdain’ in front of a 2010 panel.
It’s probably just as well. Who knows where a casual remark about biscuits could end up. Attwood could talk the hind legs off a donkey and the front legs too, and that is meant as a compliment. Every topic seems to interest him – bar perhaps the 1972 Land Registry Act that he was reading about when RW rang – and he is engaging company.
A whole new conversation ensues on the high-tackle framework, and the proliferation of red and yellow cards, that has injected a jeopardy that didn’t exist for the sport’s first 150 years. You can be plain stupid or dead unlucky but either way there’s a lot more of this to come while players learn new behaviours in tackling. Attwood knows he may have to defend himself in a hearing one day; he already nearly did after an incident against Wasps.
“I was pretty much level with the floor when I tackled the ball-carrier, I couldn’t have been much lower. But he had just survived a tackle attempt and was getting up off the floor and I tried to hit him and carry him back over the try-line. As I did so, my forearm came into contact with his head and neck area, and the TMO came in.
“The referee looked at it and awarded a penalty. It will pervade my psyche with how I approach the contact area. I’ll have to be more considerate of people’s heads.”
I remember seeing that incident and thinking it was a farcical decision to review it. But it’s the world we now live in. Does he think the current culture, with frequent stoppages in professional matches to watch a heavy collision multiple times in slow motion, is reassuring for children, or parents of children, thinking of playing rugby? Or are they thinking that this sport is just too violent?
“You’ll get people in both camps. The majority of parents, who are paying attention to the awareness around concussion and degenerative brain conditions and its potential association with rugby, will be reassured that rugby is changing the regulatory framework to try to make the game safer. They will be reassured by the research that’s going in to look at how concussion can be managed, identified and dealt with in a more efficient way.
“There will also be people who say the game’s gone soft. But then there have been people saying that since the Fifties when basically you could carry a machete into contact. There’s nothing soft about 140-kilo Billy Vunipola running into 135-kilo Nathan Hughes.
“The reality is that the physical spectacle is as pivotal as it’s ever been. But World Rugby, the RFU, are trying to make the game safer. That comes at a cost sometimes. At the minute I don’t think the cost is too high.”
At his previous club Bath, Attwood used to look around the changing room in awe at the quality of the players around him. He is experiencing that with bells on at Bristol.
“Semi Radradra and Charles Piutau are two of the best players in the world. And then you can carry on down the list: John Afoa, the world’s greatest veteran, Steve Luatua, one of the best captains I’ve ever worked with, Chris Vui, Ben Earl, Callum Sheedy is playing out of his skin, Piers O’Conor has played almost every game this season and been unbelievable in pretty much all of them.
“We’ve got such an abundance of talented players but the really interesting thing is we were missing upwards of 13, 14 of those guys during the Six Nations period and we were still winning, getting bonus points, home and away.
“Topping the league speaks to the strength of our squad. But more than the calibre of the players, it speaks to the unity of the team and the alignment of the players with the coaching staff. And how when someone’s unavailable, someone else can perform their role.”
Attwood himself is loving his rugby more than ever, and thoughts that he would call it quits at the end of his two-year deal have been shelved. After all, Afoa has signed a contract extension at 37, so who’s going to chase him down?
Against Harlequins in March, Attwood caught the ball in his 22 as Marcus Smith’s kick rebounded off a post. He beat Joe Marchant, drew Will Evans, and put Luatua away in space. The move swung this way and that before Attwood reappeared and rumbled under the posts at the other end. It was glorious to see but typical of what Bristol are producing. You sense the Bears will have the support of a lot of neutrals as they pursue their first English title.
“I might have done that as a young player. In fact, I remember doing a similar thing for England against New Zealand,” Attwood says of his audacious counter-attack. “But a career in the Premiership has taught me that pragmatism is often one of the overriding forces.
“But it is something we practise at Bristol – we practise making good decisions given what’s in front of us. If there’s only one guy coming to tackle you and you can draw him and pass to someone else, you should probably do that. We practise drawing and giving, we practise using footwork in contact, and we do that every training day.
“Regardless of where you are on the field, you can still make the most of a two-on-one overlap. You can still take five metres on the edge by bending the opposition. You can still beat someone in contact. That situation against Harlequins, to me it felt like the appropriate thing to do was to create space for the offload.”
Most days at the club start with a skills school run by Sean Marsden. Static skills for injured players, dynamic skills for fit players. In the actual training sessions, all of the phase play is designed to break the line and score a try. Every single phase. It explains why a staggering 60% of Bristol’s tries come directly from first phase.
“We’ve had sessions stopped by Pat where he says, ‘Why didn’t you pass the ball?’ ‘Oh, well I thought it was safer to carry the ball,’ the player will say. ‘We’re not after safe,’ Pat says, ‘We want to do the right thing.’ That’s the focus.”
It might be stretching it to say Pat Lam is rugby’s Pep Guardiola but not by much. There is risk attached of course, and that was seen in that same Quins game when Andy Uren passed to Ben Earl, who juggled the ball, got stripped in contact and conceded a try to Danny Care.
But the upside is moments like Harry Randall’s stunning try after 15 seconds in the European Challenge Cup final against Toulon, when instead of running into contact, Radradra sparked a short-side foray by shifting the ball to Alapati Leiua.
“When you practise being a threat from everywhere, teams have to defend you from everywhere,” adds Attwood. “There is a very high expectation on the skill level. The reason it works is because people like Callum Sheedy and Piers O’Conor practise it all the time, Semi practises it all the time. You couldn’t take this game plan and play it with Dings Crusaders, they would get relegated.
“When you’re on your try-line, the likelihood is the opposition will have three players in the backfield and two or three in the contact, which means you’re attacking against nine players in the frontline. So you must be able to take advantage when a team doesn’t defend properly.
“That’s why we score so many tries, because teams habitually think ‘Be pragmatic, England, Saracens rugby, we won’t play the ball in our half, it’s territory based, we’ll squeeze the opposition’. And there is a time and place for that. But when the opportunity is there, when the opposition don’t respect you enough, you have to punish them.”
Crime and punishment. It’s an area that Dave Attwood excels in.
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