The season may be nearing its end, but despite that, we had a new lad who joined us at training the other night. And already, I respect him a great deal.
When I say lad, what I should really say is ‘bloke’, because Nige is 34 years old. That’s plenty young enough to still be chucking a rugby ball around, as many of us (me included) are all too aware. But the thing about Nige is that, next Saturday, he’ll be pulling on his boots for at least a 10-minute run out with the rest of my squad in a league game.
And at 34, it’ll be his first ever game of rugby.
He’s been watching the sport all his life, but since the World Cup came along last autumn, he’s been more enthused than ever. And now England have won the Six Nations, he’s chomping at the bit.
Say what you like about the home nations’ performance in RWC 2015, there’s no denying the positive effect it has had on the game as a whole.
At our club, where in the past two seasons we’ve scraped and struggled to get a second team together from one week to the next, we’ve seen an influx of new players. I’m still not beating them off with a stick, but more often than not we get enough guys along to field 15 and a handful of replacements, and at a social level in the lowest of the Eastern Counties Divisions, that’s an achievement in itself.
It’s also the truly wonderful thing about rugby.
Imagine Nige’s situation in any other sport.
Here’s how it’ll play out: Nige has identified the fact that he’s more likely going to be a back than a forward. He’s not sure where, yet, but as he’s only had a couple of training sessions, I’ll start him on the wing, give him a 10-minute feel for the game to get over any initial nerves, and then bring on a more experienced player to replace him.
That, and the subsequent social activities, will be his introduction to our fabulous game, and I sincerely hope he’ll return.
In other sports, not least those with more spherical balls, if an unskilled and inexperienced player got to start while the guy who played (and played well) the week before was left on the bench, dummies and teddies would be flying everywhere.
Nige would probably never come back. He’d return to armchair sport, or the bookies.
It doesn’t happen in our team, and there are a couple of reasons for that.
The first is simply that this is rugby. Respect is one of the absolute pillars of the game, and I know before I even ask him that Ben, my usual nippy and skilled young winger, will happily come into Saturday’s game late to give an older bloke with no experience a chance to ‘feel’ rugby for himself, because it’s not just a sense of playing the game.
We all know how it gets under your skin, from being something you might fancy trying to being something you simply can’t live without.
The second is that, while I’m skipper, I’ll always welcome guys like Nige into the team.
I had an egg-shaped midlife crisis of my own when I was a year older than he is now. He’s a guy that’s living out my own story, and he’s not alone in my squad – there are five of us aged over 35 who didn’t even start playing until we hit our Thirties, and although we’re already way too far over the hill to ever be considered as the next Owen Farrell, we have our moments. Oh yes, we do.
When I first got back into rugby after a 17-year hiatus (my last game had been for my school Under 17s, and I spent it on the bench), my wife, bless her, thought I was just going to go along to a couple of training sessions, get flattened by a bunch of lads that were younger, stronger and far more athletic than me, and realise I was being stupid.
What happened was this: I went along to a couple of training sessions, got flattened by a bunch of lads that were younger, stronger and more athletic than me, and realised I was being stupid.
I also realised that this kind of stupidity was something that had been lacking from my life for way too long, amidst the chaos of career, kids, house buying and the general pressures of being a sole breadwinner with a giant mortgage.
Three years later, I’m the 2nd XV regular hooker, captain, and all-round face of the hapless but loveably inconsistent team within the club. I think the guys at the club like me. I hope so, because I bloody love them.
Rugby has given me so much in such a short period of time that I’ll never be able to put back into the sport, or my club, anywhere near as much as I’ve got out of either. That’s why they call it the Rugby Family.
I hope Nige stays and I hope he gets as much out of the game as I have because there aren’t many sports (or clubs) where you can turn up completely inexperienced, in your mid-30s, and be accepted with open arms. Welcome Nige.
You’ll get the odd black eye and buggered-up knee but stick with rugby and you’ll never regret it. Even if you do want to flounce about with the backs…