Playing rugby was something I had little choice in. I was taken to a sodden icy pitch in Belfast by my Dad at seven years old. He loved the game and in time, so would I. I weighed under 5 stone, and only had a thick cotton jersey as dubious protection.
My position was mapped out early by my physical deficiencies. Scrum half is generally the smallest member of the team in a game for giants. You are the link between the piano lifters in the forwards, and piano virtuosos in the backs. You conduct an abstract orchestra, knowing when to release the ball to differing players according to the rhythm of the game. Relying on cunning, when outmatched physically. You must read a chaotic muddy field filled with bodies fluently and quickly. You are reliant on the protection of others, as they rely on your direction to gain advantageA-. across the field.
There is no other sport in the world where so many disparate physical shapes are accommodated and celebrated. Each are completely reliant on each other. They take physical punishment for each other in the pursuit of victory from the parks to the stadiums and back. Each player has a job to do and does so without fanfare. The reward of helping your team mates normally brings its own satisfaction. The final whistle brings untold bruises and physical pain. A slight pleasure comes from recalling where each bruise came from. You earned your beer, and so did your team mates. A game that rewards physical tenacity and mental stoicism above all else.
Within a game of rugby, you can face fear, intimidation, physically and mentally from your opponents. You can learn everything about someone’s character playing the game at any level. Can they get up after getting continually knocked down? Can they sacrifice their body for the sake of their team mates? Do they sustain their effort in the face of probable defeat? I learnt everything I needed to know about myself positive and negative playing the game of rugby. It’s an allegory for life. Our breaking points and limits. Our skills and deficiencies. No game exposes them more.
I played in knee deep mud in the monsoons of Calcutta, missing five eminently kickable penalties in the West Bengal final. I directed reluctant French forwards in their mother tongue in London. I tried and failed to mar2k the captain of the Japanese 2011 World Cup team. I could never teach myself to become a competent defender. It ended in Canterbury, Sydney after getting knocked out by an uncompromising Tongan centre on a rock hard pitch. I loved it all.
The end comes for everyone. Whether it ends in a full stadium, or a rutted field in a low grade social game. Your brain knows what to do, but your feet and hands aren’t able to follow the signals as quickly as they used to. Bodies start to ache a bit longer and the ability to compete over eighty minutes diminishes. It doesn’t seem fair, you want to play this game forever, but your body calls time long before your mind has the sense to agree.
A love of my life, a game that gave me the greatest friends and the greatest possible memories. I know I’m not alone and never will be.