Sport: The day David Flatman said no to Graham Henry's Wales and how he deals with the grief he now gets from Welsh fans

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David Flatman reckons Welsh rugby owes him a debt of gratitude - for turning them down!

With his mother born in Pontypool, the lad from Kent was eligible for Wales and so, some 20 odd years ago, Graham Henry came calling.

Looking back now, the England prop turned pundit has a vivid recollection of how the conversation went.

“I got a call when Graham was boss of Wales,” he reveals.

“It was around about 2000.

“He said ‘We hear you are qualified for Wales, would you consider playing for Wales?’.

“I said ‘No, I am English’.

“I said no straightaway because I’m not Welsh.

“My whole childhood, I dreamt of playing for England.

“When I was a kid, every time I played rugby, I was Chris Oti.

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“All my mates wanted to be John Barnes or Ian Rush, but I wanted to be Chris Oti, who played on the wing for England. He was my favourite player.

“I was qualified for Scotland as well through a grandparent, but playing for anyone else never crossed my mind.

“As it happened, me turning Wales down ended up being very good for them.

“They picked this youngster called Gethin Jenkins instead!

“As soon as they picked him, I thought ‘Well it’s lucky, I didn’t choose Wales because I wouldn’t even have got eight caps!’

“If they look back and remember it even, Wales will be delighted that I turned them down.

“The world should thank me for opening the door for Gethin, although I think he would have opened the door for himself regardless.”

Flatman went on to make his debut for England on the loosehead later that year and won eight caps in all during a career that took in spells at Saracens and Bath.

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Today, he is a leading commentator and pundit on the game for ITV and Channel 5.

It’s a role that sees him having some colourful interactions with fans of the country he could have played for.

“Without question, the most grief I get on social media after commenting on a game is from Welsh fans, by a mile,” he reveals.

“A lot of them say ‘Who the f*** is this bloke and why is he telling me what’s going on?’

“I love the Welsh, I love watching Wales, I have commentated on tons of Welsh games, I love the place. My mum was born in Pontypool, I have got Welsh blood and I live half an hour from Wales.

“So I sort of feel half Welsh when I talk about rugby.

“But then what happens is you go on Twitter and someone says ‘Who do you think is going to win out of England and Wales?’

“And you say ‘I think England will win’.

“Then Wales will win and I will have 5,000 Welsh people saying ‘We hate you, this has come back to bite you, this aged well you p***k, you shouldn’t have that job, you are s***, you were a s*** player’.

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“During the World Cup, England lost the final after I predicted they would win it.

“Oh my God, I had to go off Twitter for a little while.

“It wasn’t that I was losing sleep over it, it was that I literally couldn’t get through all the abuse from Welsh people.

“I was laughing with Shanks (Tom Shanklin) about it in Tokyo.

“I said ‘I never knew that many Welsh people knew who I was’.

“Honestly, I reckon I got more Tweets than Shane or Alfie that day.

“I had so many Tweets with people saying ‘You are a p***k, who are you anyway?’.

“So I had to have a couple of days off just to let them get over the fact England had lost a game I thought they would win!”

Born in Maidstone, Flatman took up rugby aged eight at his local club, inspired by his father, who was also a prop.

While attending Dulwich College, he played for England Schools, alongside the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Tindall, Steve Borthwick and Andrew Sheridan and went on to win further representative honours at Colts, Under-21 and A level.

Then came the full caps between 2000 and 2002, but injury was to deny him playing a part in the 2003 World Cup triumph.

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Fitness battles, over his shoulders and hand, were to become a common experience for him.

“Going into the World Cup year, I thought I was in great shape and that I’d probably be involved,” he recalls.

“Then in my second game of the season I got injured and was out for six months and Trevor Woodman got in there.

“I got back into the squad in 2004 and thought I was in contention. Then I got injured again and was out for nearly two years.

“I was very competitive as a player and far more committed than I was talented.

“The problem was when I did work my way up into contention, I kept getting injured.

“But I absolutely loved it. I had a great time.

“Rugby is a sport that can give you a huge amount.

“The fact it takes you to some pretty extreme, high-pressure places physically does bond people together more than other sports might.

“You go to horrible places with your mates. You rely on people and they deliver for you and vice versa.

“It does teach you a lot. I rather like the sport, put it that way.”

It was during one of his long injury lay-offs that Flatman first dipped his toe into the punditry waters.

“My agent called me and said Mark Regan had pulled out of doing a game and did I want to be in the studio,” he explains.

“I actually said ‘No, I’m alright thanks’ because Bath were playing London Irish that weekend and Bob Casey was staying at my place and we were going on the p**s on Saturday night, so I’ll be hungover on Sunday, so I can’t do it.

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“She said ‘Well, tough s***, find a suit, iron your shirt, the car is booked for 10am, you’re doing it’.

“She was like you need to do something other than just be an injured rugby player.

“So she kind of forced me to do it and I loved it.

“I didn’t do any prep and I wasn’t very good, but I still enjoyed it and they asked me back.

“After a couple of months, they said you should do some prep because we noticed you don’t do any.

“I said ‘What am I supposed to do?’.

“They said well this is what Stuart Barnes does and I said ‘Oh right, I’ll do that’ and I’ve done it ever since.

“It’s basically watch a lot of rugby, give an opinion and stick to it, don’t be afraid to be wrong, don’t be afraid of people disagreeing with you and do your homework.

“By the time I retired in 2012, I had done probably 40 or 50 games for various channels and I loved it.”

So with Wales-England coming up next weekend, how does Flatman approach commentating on a game like that, being a former English international?

“Whenever a pundit or analyst says they are neutral, nobody believes them,” he replies.

“However, what I would say is I am 100 per cent neutral and I don’t care if no-one believes me. I couldn’t give a monkeys.

“I am entirely neutral. I played for Saracens for five years, Bath for nine or ten years.

“But my heart-rate genuinely does not change no matter who is winning or losing a rugby match.

“I’m on the touchline at the World Cup final, as an ex-England international, with Paul O’Connell, who played for Ireland, and I am as neutral as he is.

“In a way, that’s really helpful because I don’t have to fake it.

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“I just watch the game and analyse it and think about it.

“I almost wouldn’t see the names and the faces, I would just see movements and techniques and that kind of thing.

“I genuinely mean it. I do not care who wins.

“If I am watching England against Wales at Twickenham or in Cardiff, I literally don’t care who wins. I couldn’t give a monkeys.

“I never say ‘we’, I never say ‘us’ because that isn’t me, that’s not how I view it.

“I’m not deliberately missing those things out. That’s just not how I feel.

“So I am lucky in that sense because I don’t have to fake it.

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“In the moment, when I’m commentating, I don’t care who wins, I am just commentating on what I’m seeing.

"I enjoy watching this Welsh team and I would love it if they were awesome against England next week.

"I know I am English, but, as I say, I don't really care who wins, I just hope it's a good crack for an hour and a half really,"

a person standing in front of a crowd: Dave Flatman and Mark Durden-Smith presenting Channel 5''s coverage of the English Premiership © David Rogers/Getty Images Dave Flatman and Mark Durden-Smith presenting Channel 5''s coverage of the English Premiership

For Flatman, now 41, honesty is the best policy when it comes to punditry.

“It gives me no pleasure to say someone has underperformed or made a mistake or somebody is poor, but I will say it anyway,” he explains.

“Equally, it gives me great pleasure to say when things are really good and I enjoy that, but I won’t say it for the sake of it.

“If I had 50 or 100 caps and a World Cup medal under my belt, maybe I would feel more secure in my job.

“But if I start blagging it, not being honest and being disingenuous, then I don’t think I’ve got enough rugby pedigree to stick in the game. I think I will be replaced by someone who has got more caps.

“That’s how I view it because they are a star name. So it’s vital that I am honest.”

He adds: “When I am sitting next to Shane Williams or Tom Shanklin, there is no comparison who was the better, more successful rugby player.

“But that was our old job. They were better than me at our old job.

“This is our new job and it’s been our job for ten years, for some of us.

“So we are very close to having done this job for as long as we did the old job.

“It’s a completely different line of work.

“What we do is not sport, what we do is communication.”

The articulate and loquacious Flatman will be on that communicating beat over the coming weeks as the Six Nations unfolds and, as ever, he will be saying it as he sees it.

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