Well, it happened, and I’m genuinely choked.
After the best season in recent memory, what was once Cambridgeshire’s second worst rugby team has confounded its critics, and we have somehow managed to finish our season in a promotion position.
It happened at the start of this month. Needing just two points to guarantee ourselves second position (and automatic promotion) in our merit table on the penultimate weekend of the season, nerves got the better of us, and we succumbed in front of a home crowd to a rather comprehensive pasting – albeit from the team above us, who had already won the league.
It’s not how a team wants to enjoy promotion, but later that evening, I was watching the results from our league come in, expecting our last game of the season to be a crucial decider. If the team behind us in the league had won – and they were clear favourites – then they would be just three points behind us going into the last weekend of the season, with both of us facing mid-table opposition. If this was Premiership rugby, the TV pundits would have been getting excited.
In the event, when the scores came through I found out that our nearest rivals had lost 19-17, in what, from the score alone, must have been a thrilling encounter. But they lost, and that meant that in the cold light of day, our team had won promotion.
I’m not ashamed to say that I welled up when the score came in. If you’ll allow me to indulge for a moment, I took up rugby later than most. Having not played since school (albeit as a half useful hooker, aged 15), I’d left it 20 years before returning to the game.
A-levels, university, girls, a career, marriage, kids and various other things took over my life. And while I regret none of the above (except, maybe, a couple of the girls…) it was only after working overseas for a year and taking stock of my life that I realised I had to do something personal, for me. It enabled me to realise there was more to life than just earning and providing.
Rugby was the answer.
In September 2013, I rocked up at my local club with bugger all experience and even less skill. I took part in one training session, during which I was flattened, hurt, defeated and destroyed by lads who were younger, fitter and immensely more talented than me. A weaker man may have waved the white flag of surrender, gone home to his wife and said ‘I’m glad I went, but it’s not for me’.
But my club is not that kind of place, and I’m not that kind of bloke. I came back, week after week. Despite my obvious weaknesses, I was welcomed, encouraged, and invited into the rugby family with no prejudice. Over the subsequent four years, those people have become some of my closest friends and supporters, so when I took over the captaincy of the 2nd XV at the start of last season, I knew they were behind me, despite the limits of my talent and experience. I don’t believe that this would happen in any other sport.
In 2017, the boy that was always picked last for PE, that had limited social skills, and despite being outwardly extrovert was (and to some extent still is) challenged by public situations, captained a sports team to promotion, in their best season in many, many years.
I am that boy. And never in my wildest dreams did I ever believe I’d captain a sports team, nor see them not only thrive, but succeed in such a way that they not only got promoted, but also reached a cup final, in a period of less than two years. To achieve that as a 39-year old adult is way beyond what I could ever have dreamed of, and will stay with me for the rest of my life.
That’s my indulgence, for which I hope you, as a reader, will forgive me. It’s my rugby story, and it’s why, right now, I’m feeling an immense sense of pride. Yes, part of it is for myself, but much more than that it’s for the boys and men of all ages and backgrounds who have come together and played as a team; who have taken us up a level, and have shown each other trust, respect, support and – most of all – friendship to take us from where we were, to where we are.
Four years ago, I didn’t know this world existed. Today, I wish I’d found it 20 years earlier. Rugby is the most inclusive and wonderful sport in the world, and I’m so glad I found it, even if I did leave it a bit late…