Last season, I took on the captaincy of Cambridgeshire’s second worst rugby team. For years, we’d been plodding along, fulfilling fixtures where we could, and finishing near the bottom of our merit table despite giving it our best shot.
We were – and still are, to a degree – a disparate bunch of blokes aged between our late teens and mid-Fifties, turning out when we could, enjoying our rugby and generally getting battered, bettered and defeated more often than not. And despite the heartache, it was fun.
Then, towards the end of last season, something changed. Instead of losing by an average of nine or ten tries per game, we suddenly started to defend. We were still losing more often than we were winning, but the glue that held us together was getting stronger.
I first noticed it a few weeks before Christmas 2015. We lost 91-17 away to a local rival, but despite the clearly weighted score line, we played some good rugby.
Our second try, a driving maul played out by a hungry and indefatigable pack, remains one of my all-time favourite moments. It was our stalwart prop, Big Jim, a coal merchant by trade and the strongest man I’ve ever met, who laid the ball across the whitewash, but it was a team try.
There were 10 of us in the maul, and it was sheer might and determination that pushed our opposition back across their own try line. That was in the 70th minute, when we were clearly defeated, but in our hearts and minds we weren’t. There was pride, and from that pride, we’ve developed.
As we walked through the tunnel at the end of the game, I encountered one of the nicest and most touching moments of my rugby career. A spectator, who I later learned was the opposing team’s club president, called me over and said, “Skip, you should be so proud of your boys today. You’d clearly lost the game, but I’ve never witnessed a team with such heart.”
It made my day.
It was also a massive turning point for us. The following week, we played the league leaders, away.
We lost 49-0.
In the bar after the game, their skipper told me we were the best team they’d played against, not for our skill, but for our never-say-die attitude. They were clearly a better side, but our team spirit, he told me, was incredible. “You’ll get there,” he said. And I started to believe him.
Two months later, with an almost identical side, we hosted that very team at home, and while we still lost, the final score was 14-17.
We so nearly made it. And despite the lack of victory, it was a proud moment. Our team of waifs and strays had started to play rugby as a team. There was no player in that squad who was any better as an individual than they had been before, but as a team we’d started to understand, trust and support each other way more than ever before.
Wind the clock forward twelve months and things are very different.
Instead of being second from bottom, we’re second from top, two points behind the league leaders and nine ahead of the third placed team, with three league games left. I’m not going to book the open top bus just yet, but with the top two teams going up, we could be in line for promotion.
Oh, and we’ve also reached our first cup final.
In short, then, whatever happens over the next few weeks we’ve had an incredible season, and nobody expected it less than I did.
The most incredible thing is that, aside from a couple of new faces, we’re still the same bunch of guys. Yet, instead of a collective of random blokes from various different backgrounds who come together every Saturday on a rugby field to give it their best shot, we’re a team.
A bunch of mates who respect, trust and support each other, and who are united in our love for our small, provincial rugby club.
The biggest thing that’s changed is that the hunger is there, the desire to win, and the knowledge that when we’ve done it once, so we can do it again. This season, we’ve quadrupled our try tally over 2015/16, and cut our conceded number of tries by 80 per cent. It’s incredible, and I can’t even begin to describe the pride I feel in my squad for what they’ve achieved.
They say that pride comes before a fall. If so, let it be.
I’ll happily take one for the team if I have to, because this season has been incredible, and has made me realise that returning to rugby at the age of 35 is one of the most amazing and rewarding things I’ve ever done.
For anyone thinking about getting involved in the game, whatever your age or ability, do it. You’ll be so glad that you did…