About ten years ago, on a wet windy morning at Ravenhill, I can remember sitting in the changing-room about to go out for what we knew would be a hard training session. Sitting next to me was a young new recruit into the Ulster squad.
He stared out at the grey, dismal day and said, ‘Look at it out there, you wouldn’t be doing this if you weren’t paid for it, would you?’
It is amazing what you remember from your playing days, and that question has never left me. I can remember looking at him thinking how much things had changed since I started out life with Ulster in the amateur era almost twenty years ago.
I pointed out that, not only had I spent years doing exactly ‘this’ without getting paid for it, but I would still do it for nothing. I may also have told him to ‘tighten up’.
Despite this, I am amazed at how surprised everyone seems to be about the comment by the England player after England’s quarter final defeat that it was “£35,000 down the toilet”.
You know what? If I had looked around the room, knowing that we had the beating of France, I would have thought exactly the same thing.
I certainly wouldn’t have said it, but it definitely would have entered my head. Thirty-five grand!
Not only would I have been gutted, but I would bet that it crossed every single player’s mind at some stage in the aftermath of that match.
I can remember looking at my playing contract with the bonus arrangements with Heineken Cup wins and Ireland internationals.
It is only human. It does not demean the honour of pulling on a shirt — I would have sold everything I owned to represent Ulster and Ireland, but that is the nature of performance-related pay, and believe it or not, it matters.
Many of the other seemingly outrageous comments would have been made by Irish players had the manner of their performances been similar in the tournament.
Given the security of confidentiality, some comments were bound to be hugely critical.
There is incredible rivalry amongst players, not everybody gets on, and a mark of a quality coach is to keep a squad united in its purpose, despite the inherent challenges of group dynamics.
There was one statement, however, that did shock me — the allegation that the whole plan for the RWC seemed to be operated ‘off the cuff’.
There is no excuse for a lack of planning. Martin Johnson (pictured) paid the price for matters on the pitch, but who is responsible for the wider operational planning?
I am still unsure as to what Rob Andrew does, but given that he seems to be the only other person involved at a senior level with the senior squad, how he is still in his position defies comprehension. This is the nub of the problem — the sheer lack of accountability and responsibility.
The standard is set by the individual at the top of the organisation. That instils the culture and expectation.
Johnson has been rightly criticised, but at least he had the self-awareness and decency to realise his lack of achievement.
The RFU is a laughing stock at the moment, and the sooner they can manage to draw a line in the sand the better.
Stories keep running and running and the English press seems to have an insatiable appetite.
Mike Tindall’s reduced fine and return to the elite playing squad undermines the architect of his original punishment — Rob Andrew again — and provide more fuel for the fire.
The English clubs have moved on, but the RFU seems to be at the bottom of a well with no ladder. The vitriolic comments are an editor’s delight and make for great headlines.
The gasps we utter are at the raw honesty of some of the players. However, the comments simply confirm what we suspected already.
England was not a united squad, their rugby preparation was highly questionable, and this manifested itself on the pitch.
For me, it proves that the squad was unhappy in its own company.
While there will always be competitive tension, you need a sense of common purpose within a squad.
Team spirit may be an old-fashioned concept, but sometimes it is only when you lack it that you truly value its significance.