Skip's Diary - The Sweetest of Defeats

February 9, 2016

There aren’t many sports in which you can get comprehensively hammered, smash your right elbow to pieces, have the piss taken out of you for a shambolic throw-in and then go home and tell the family that you’ve had a truly fantastic afternoon.

But this is rugby, and it’s different.

Our opponents last Saturday were from the southern outskirts of Cambridge. They’re one of several teams in Cambridge’s rugby ‘ghetto.'

Whereas I struggle, some weekends, to get 15 living, breathing human beings into a field, those on the Shelford Road in South Cambridge, are spoilt for choice.

There are many teams who can field at least 3 teams in the area, including the mighty Cambridge RUFC in Grantchester, though we’ve never visited them on the basis that even their 3rd XV is several strata above us in the UK rankings.

I think they may even get paid.

Working on the not unreasonable basis of 18 players per team, there’s 12 teams within a two mile stretch of road – or at least 216 guys who pull on a pair of rugby boots every week in an extremely localised area. That’s enough for me to consider giving up my day job to open a shop selling only Deep Heat, gum shields, sock tape and beer on one of the lanes out the back of the hospital – I know how much of all of the above get nicked out of my kit bag every week, and that’s only from 15 of the buggers.

Anyway, of all the clubs in the Cambridge rugby ghetto, our opponents from last week are my favourite.

Woefully underfunded, hugely enthusiastic and led by a bunch of ex-players who live and breathe their club. They’re impeccable hosts, and not the slightest bit up themselves.

They’re also having an incredible season.

Last year, they had a stinker and were relegated. Some of their players defected to one of the local glory clubs. There were weekends where they struggled to raise a squad, and others where they could, but may as well not have bothered.

I know how that feels, but I also know how important it is for the guys that love the sport and crave a game every weekend to still turn out and have seven rounds of shite knocked out of them.

It has nothing to do with victory, and everything to do with the sheer, simple pleasure of charging round a field smashing into things as you inhale the combined heady aromas of Deep Heat, mud and Vicks Vaporub (other Vapour Rubs are available).

It’s compelling, it’s addictive, and when you get home, climb in the bath and fail to get out again, there’s genuinely no feeling any greater.

You’re a rugby player. You’re wrong in the head, and you’re a much better human being for that.

So far, in the 2015-16 season, said opponents haven’t lost. They’ve had a big recruitment campaign, and picked up a load of decent players, a fair percentage of whom appear to come from Cambridge’s Eastern European community and, I must add, are among the most gentlemanly rivals I’ve ever met.

So far, they’ve won every game they’ve played, and by quite a significant margin. Ahead of their game vs. us, they must have taken one look at our -241 points tally and spent their Friday evening fantasising about just how many tries they’d stick past us on the Saturday afternoon, while I spent mine frantically texting and bribing as many additional players as I could rustle up, just to make sure we turned up with a squad!

The answer was 9. For both of us.

They expected more, and I expected less.

And so it was that we rocked up at their local school, in which the rugby club is secreted at the back of the grounds (it may well qualify as the best hidden rugby club in the British Isles) and makes use of the school field.

We started well, and kept them at bay for 10 minutes… But it was clear that they were a classy side, with a dangerous and well-drilled back line.

I’d done everything I possibly could to bring the best squad I could together, including depriving our local secondary school of its new maths teacher, mere days since he stepped foot on British soil for the first time after travelling here from Adelaide, South Australia.

As ever, the boys were giving it heart. That’s standard for our 2nd XV – we have a reputation for never, ever giving up no matter how hopeless the situation (indeed, I have been known to shout ‘Come on lads, we can still win this one!’ when we’ve been 60 points adrift with three minutes left on the clock, and not been fully sure I didn’t mean it, such is their ability to pick themselves up from the gutter).

At the break, we were 32 points adrift, with no score.

Many clubs, at this point, would switch off and go home.

We upped our game. I lost Liam, a newish flanker (who, aged just 22, somehow manages to have caveman-like levels of body hair) to concussion, which is astonishing really as I’d have expected his fur to absorb most of the impact.

Moff, our 50-year old prop, was suffering from an anguished knee (his words) and young Ross, my 18-year old replacement flanker, had what appeared to be a similar level of patella-related anxiety. But still we battled, and we played the best 30 minutes of rugby I’ve ever seen us play.

That, in part, is because I didn’t see much of it.

For a lot of the game, I was tied up in driving maul after driving maul, my head buried up someone’s arse, as we used the one trick we had in the book to push, push and push our rivals towards the line (most of my backs this weekend were forwards…).

It’s astonishing (and still a bit heartbreaking) that we never quite managed to make the try line, but all credit to our hosts for their tenacious defence. Bastards.

By the last 10 minutes, we leaked a few more points, but boy, we were knackered. I mean, genuinely. I haven’t felt that busted after a game of rugby in two years and do you know what? It was lovely.

What was even nicer was in the bar afterwards, as both teams awarded Man of the Match and Dick of the Day awards (MoM: Aussie Matt, because I want him to come back next week. DoD: Ehren, because he was the only one not driving and could therefore drink the punishment), was both their skipper and club chairman coming over to tell me that, not only had we given them a great, sporting game, but that we were the best opposition they’d had all season, and a million times better than expected.

When you go down 49-0 and the opposition tell you, with not a hint of sarcasm, how bloody well you’ve played, it makes your afternoon a bit special regardless. And I was glad to hear most of my team in agreement with that, too.

Next job? A cup game, away again. But first, I need to find a non-injured flanker and the rest of a front row…

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