It’s nearly upon us, folks. Yes, the eagerly awaited 2016-17 amateur club season is about to kick-off, with teams across the UK hotly anticipating the thrills and excitement that await. Well, something like that. For me, it’s more a case of trying to ignore the right ankle that’s still swollen after an unfortunate incident involving a caravan awning three weeks ago, and a sense of bewilderment that, once again, the 75 text messages I sent out to my 2nd XV squad members appear to have disappeared into the ether. It happens at the start of every season, until we really get going.
We have our first full game of the season this Saturday.
It’s not a league game, but a cup match traditionally played on the first weekend of September against local rivals, and in order to honour it I need at least 15 players, ideally more.
I currently have nine – the others are either still on holiday, hiding the weekly ‘rugby text’ from their wives as ‘rugby doesn’t start until September’ or have taken one look at the balmy weather forecast, stamped their feet on the rock hard ground and decided that, right now, it’s not quite the rugby time of year.
Or, perhaps it’s just the annual pre-season trepidation.
I, like many of my rugby mates, have just enjoyed four months of being relatively fit and undamaged. Indeed, had it not been for a caravan awning in need of some serious anger management counselling, I’d be 100 per cent up and at ‘em right now. But anyone who plays lower league rugby knows that such a feeling won’t last.
By late September, and for the next seven months, there will always be at least one limb, muscle or ligament that doesn’t feel quite right. A nagging pain. A joint that you can’t quite move. A moderately debilitating physical ailment that you have to suck right up and not dare grimace over, because if your other half were to see you struggling, you might not be allowed to play next week.
I have to confess, there’s a very small part of me that really can’t be bothered any more with the pain, the exhaustion or the hard work that goes into chucking a ball backwards to move it forwards every Saturday.
But I know it won’t last – it’s merely the pre-season jitters.
I went down to the club last Saturday to watch the 1st XV play a pre-season game. They were good. Very good. So good, in fact, that I have high hopes for them this season, as well as a secret desire to inherit the players who may have lost their places to younger or more talented ones breaking through.
More than that, though, there was a part of me that was really craving some time on the pitch. I’m not sure which part, but it certainly wasn’t my anguished right ankle nor my hungover forehead, but deep inside, I could feel my inner rugger starting to stir.
Indeed, I mentioned this to one of our retired players, Graham, who was also cheering the boys along from the touchline.
I expressed my concerns that I ‘wasn’t really feeling it’ for the new season, then promptly went into a long (and possibly quite boring) monologue about how proud I was of our lowly 2nd XV, and of how I was going to ‘leave it until Friday’ to go for a run, just to make sure my ankle had enough healing time for Saturday (did I mention I’d hurt it?).
“You know you’ll be playing on Saturday,” he said. “And I know it, too, just from listening to you.”
Graham, a former prop, knew exactly where I was coming from, of course.
Like me, he’d previously enjoyed many a simple summer, barbecuing for the kids, taking the wife for lunch, followed by weeks of heartache from within the household as the season started up again.
His diagnosis was that I was suffering from too much time away from the game, and that I needed to get the hell back out there while I was still young enough to do so with heart.
And once I do, I know that on a Saturday afternoon, I’ll be the happiest I ever am during a miserable winter’s week. I’ll be filthy, sore, in trouble with the missus, knackered, thirsty and bruised all over. But I’ll also be with my mates, my comrades. The best bunch of blokes you could ever wish to spend a Saturday afternoon getting beaten up with, followed by the inevitable beer, humour and war tales.
Yes, rugby is a sport.
Yes, it’s competitive, and even at my level you want to win.
But more than that – so much more – it’s somewhere where likeminded folk (from either side) can come together and understand each other, just for one afternoon, and escape the trials and tribulations of life itself.
And that’s why I’ll be back out there next Saturday, leading my troops into battle.
That’s if any of the buggers answer my texts, of course!
Enjoy your season, whether it brings success or failure, because every single one of us, man, woman or child, who pulls on a pair of boots every weekend, is doing it for a common love and respect. For the game, and more importantly, for each other.