Rugby was one of the few things that I was good at. Where my opportunities to progress within the sport were curtailed were around my even stronger commitment to my home life. Eventually I settled into a rhythm of playing every weekend for the club team without having to go to training during the week or commit to any more time away from home. Working shifts meant that I saw little enough of my partner (and ultimately my kids), and that was where my priorities lay. Still, I looked forward to every game, and with very few exceptions, thoroughly enjoyed the contests.
Those days are over now - a combination of circumstance and injury caught up with me - and any attempt to try to play at my advanced age would be dangerous. I miss it so very much today...but once upon a time, I had it all to look forward to:
Mud and big boots.
Rugby and I had a rocky start to getting to know one another. Back in the mid seventies in England, as a small child for my age group (in fact the second smallest in my first grade of high school), the surly, intimidating school rugby coach - impressively injured in some bygone match to the extent that running was now utterly beyond him - took one look at my huge head of goldfish bowl-shaped hair on top of a scrawny little body and singled me out as 'a winger'. In retrospect, this may well have been an inappropriate euphemism for something else, but I didn't know about words like 'euphemism' then, and so took him at face value. A winger I was, and as instructed, I went to stand 'over there'. Huddled in a small group of boys with similarly goose-pimpled and purple-mottled thighs on a cool September afternoon, it was immediately clear that diminutive size (or worse: apparent wimpiness) was the main characteristic by which I had been chosen for this particular position. By inference the principle seemed to be that the further away from the pack we were placed (and apart from full back, it doesn't get much further away than on either wing), the less was the likelihood of us being broken into unpleasantly mushy lumps of bloodied flesh.
There I stood, eleven years old, approximately four feet six inches tall and weighing ninety pounds on a wet day. My rugby kit, such as it was, was not new: it had been saved by my parents ever since my closest brother had gone through the same process in the same school a whole five years earlier. Consequently it was ill-fitting, tattered around the load-bearing bits, more than a little faded and attractively accented by faint and mysterious stains from a bygone era. In a school heavily supplied with pupils from definitively middle class families, my working class roots were showing. My rugby boots were likewise 'previously loved'; two sizes too big on the inside and about fifteen sizes too big on the outside, complete with their own individual gravitational fields. These behemoths appeared to have been fashioned from one entire cow, and all of the hide had clearly been used in the process; they were thick, ugly, sported leather laces, reached halfway up my calf, and weighed about three pounds each. I felt - and looked - like a circus clown as I lifted each foot artificially high to avoid catching the toe of the boots on the ground. Standing still, due to a combination of outsized footwear, baggy kit draped on a skinny body and a perfectly spherical hair cut courtesy of my mother, my silhouette was not unlike a folded patio umbrella. I did not exactly strike fear into the hearts of my opponents.
As the youngest child of a low income family I had not had the best nutritional start in the world, but I knew that I was fast and agile on my feet, as countless schoolyard games of 'British Bulldog' had proven. My priorities were therefore to avoid being trampled, punched, bitten, trampled again or in any way mangled, and to run as fast as possible either around, or even better, away from any signs of trouble. Survival on the sporting battlefield was, in those earliest days, my only objective.
At first, however - after the teachers had painstakingly organized us into something approaching a couple of teams - it seemed that I had been worrying about nothing; the initial few instructional games were frankly very boring. All I seemed to do was walk forwards a few paces, stop...back a few paces, stop again...forward...and so on. Typically for school rugby being played by boys with no prior experience of the game, the ball (full sized, rubbed clean of any markings, slick to the point of being polished, over-inflated and therefore HUGE to our child's eyes and hands) very rarely made it far out of the pack to the half backs or centres, and absolutely never out to the wing; not even, it seemed, by some freakish accident. Watching sixteen other boys fight one another as they rumbled around the central forty percent of the pitch was about as dull as sport could get for me, and to be honest I saw no future in it...Rugby, I was convinced, sucked.
Then...one day...the impossible happened. Wandering about miserably and aimlessly near the touchline, staring vacantly over the neighbouring fence into a field of freshly harvested corn I had only just realized that it didn't grow in cans), I noticed with alarm that the typical noises of the game (mostly shouting) seemed to be closer than usual. I looked up just in time to reflex-catch the ball as it flew towards my face. There was a moment's hesitation followed by some supportive encouragement and instruction from the coach: "Run with it you little idiot!" As the very real prospect of an imminent mangling fizzled into my awareness, I did just that; sprinting as fast as my little legs could carry me while wearing ankle-high rugby boots, spurred on by the terror of having the much larger boys (that would be all of them, then) catch me, throw me to the muddy ground and trample me therein. Initially I was directionless; all I wanted to do was head towards 'away' and I half expected to be crushed at any second. To my surprise, however, after running the wrong way for several seconds, I found myself running towards the opposition's goal posts through a slow-motion world; giant filth-covered galloots swung and missed, grasping hands reached out just too late to grab the fluttering hand-me-down jersey which hung down below my shorts, and cursing centres jinked the wrong way in response to my own instinctive side step. I had no idea what I was doing, but it worked! Soon, only the full back stood forlornly between me and unexpected glory. His name was Simon Bumfort. With a name like that he was just asking for trouble.
Luck was on my side: he was just about the only boy on the pitch smaller than me, and I knew that I had a slim chance of victory. As I advanced, he danced about nervously, unsure of what to do (which made two of us). I jinked; he jinked. I jinked the other way; he followed my move once more. I could hear nothing - the roar of the wind in my ears totally obscuring the high-pitched, screamed (eleven year old boys sound every bit like eleven year old girls) encouragement of my team mates and the instructions of the coach. So far, the only tries scored in our instructional games had been when one pack or the other more or less accidentally fell over the try line with somebody underneath the pile still miraculously clutching - or more likely, lying upon - the ball. This, then, was an opportunity to make a name for myself. Simon jumped about opposite me until the amount of grass between us had almost totally disappeared and then, having run out of jinking ideas and in a state of mild panic, I ran - much to my own surprise - straight through and over him. He squealed feebly (rather like a dog's squeaky toy) as I did so, which served only to awaken my latent blood lust, and laughing manically like a miniature Christopher Walken, I triumphantly crossed the try line, leaped theatrically into the air (as I had seen players do on TV) and flopped to the ground in the corner, about as far from the posts as it was possible to get. I landed on the ball and kncoked all the air out of my lungs, but it didn't matter - I'd scored! Unbelievably, I had really scored a try. Rugby was, suddenly, actually extremely cool!
From that moment on, I looked forward to every games session - two hours of rugby each week during which I entertained the dream of recreating my glory with another scintillating run. I ached to get the ball in my hands once again. My excitement was partly due to the fact that I had unexpectedly discovered a sport which suited my fleetness of foot as well as my agility...just as long as I didn't have to tackle anyone. I tried not to think about that too much. The state of the schoolboy game in the 1970s was such that we were all very much beginners; mini-rugby did not exist and eleven was the entry age for young players. As a result, most games - training or otherwise - consisted largely of two packs of chubby and lanky kids huddled over the ball, engaged in an endless wrestling match in the muddiest part of the pitch, with an occasional decisive breakaway. While extending the boring element of being on the wing, it also meant that I could deliberately spend some time looking enthusiastic about tackling someone without much danger of ever having to actually do so. I could survive by bluff...or so I thought.
The first time it actually happened, I rather stupidly tried to tackle the largest, ugliest and nastiest kid on the pitch - Martin 'Bones' Powell - and for my feeble efforts found myself lying on my back with a boot print on my chest, quite unable to breathe for a while, as the game continued around me. The second time, despite having taken an oath to never try anything so stupid in the future, it was, remarkably, Martin who again faced my terrifying wrath (although he may understandably have mistaken my wrath for trembling knees, a whimpering sound and quivering lips). I could see him grinning as, having broken free from the pack with a mighty roar and with flames (well, almost) snorting from his nostrils, he bore down upon me, knees pumping like enormous, mud-caked pink pistons and eyes glowing with hatred. Clearly, he anticipated another trampling. 'Oh crap." I thought, somewhat less than fearlessly. Driven more by the embarrassment of the previous week's effort (I told you we didn't get to make many tackles) than anything else, I forced myself to try again. This time I cunningly avoided the head-on foolishness of my first attempt and allowed him to almost pass me before leaping on him, not unlike Gollum onto a fat Hobbit. Since biting and clubbing were frowned upon even in those days, I hung on to him like a frightened Octopus, and tried my best to bring his relatively gargantuan mass down.
It immediately became clear - as we proceeded down the pitch at undiminished speed - that he had barely noticed my lightweight presence, and I was forced to adopt a more cunning strategy, sliding down his bulk, sustaining blows from his flailing feet in the process, until my arms were around his legs. At that point, despite being shaken like a rag doll, I gripped as tight as I could, closed my eyes and dragged my legs along the ground. To my astonishment, with a howl of outrage and dismay, he suddenly toppled forwards on top of the ball. Within a second the chasing pack were on us, carefully and enthusiastically trampling on Martin and - thank you, sweet Jesus - avoiding my own delicate limbs. Martin - not a very popular kid - howled and yelled and then cried like a baby as scores of boots rained down their revenge upon his bullying bulk, while I, curling into a foetal position, escaped with nary a mark from an accidental kick here and there. Lying there under the pile of bodies and with mud in my nostrils, I grinned to myself. Rugby was genuinely cool, even when it hurt a bit.
What was it then, that appealed to a small boy who until then had only played soccer, both for fun at home and for his junior (elementary) school team? Well...to be blunt: nothing at all, really. At the outset, I was certainly scared of getting hurt - and getting hurt badly. As a small kid I survived on my wits, making my friends laugh and avoiding fights, but rugby seemed to require the exact opposite of me. On the face of it, rugby was an intimidating, gladiatorial and downright frightening sport that until then I had only watched with horrified fascination on TV. Being almost literally thrown into it at school with no choice in the matter was the only way I was ever likely to encounter it as a playing experience. My very earliest experiences were all negative (thankfully not overly painful or terrifying), but once I had experienced the thrill of scoring a try with almost my first touch of the ball (it was a good thing I hadn't needed to try to pass the darned thing), and then faced my worst fears and successfully tackled someone, everything in the garden appeared to be rosy. I had, of course, yet to experience the embarrassments of dropping the crucial catch, missing the vital tackle, kicking fresh air where a moment before there had definitely been a ball, and of course the indescribable and unforgettable delights of being on the receiving end of a perfectly timed hand-off to the face.
These fleeting disasters were all unimagined moments as, with a shaft of heavenly sunlight falling upon me and an orchestra playing a crescendo of inspirational music in the background, I lay in a pile of mud and quietly fell deeply and irrevocably in love with the game...