There are many reasons why I, and no doubt the majority of visitors to this site, believe that Rugby Union is the greatest sport in the world. Whether it’s the sheer physicality of the game, the fact that you can escape from the stresses and strains of daily life and let loose on a field full of likeminded loonies to get the pressures out of your system, the social life, the banter, the humour, the ability to enjoy victory, or to lose graciously, it’s a sport that, most of the time, brings out the best in people.
I’m pleased to say I’ve experienced that very recently, from a rival team 20 miles down the road. After my last column, in which I was a little bit bewildered by encountering some bad losers, my faith in the game was absolutely restored by a situation that put the boot firmly on the other foot.
As a lower league captain, running a second team of extremely mixed ability, primarily as a social side, but also in a league, we have our good weeks and our bad ones. A couple of weeks ago, we were all set for a bad one…
It started on Monday, when my response rate to my weekly availability text sat squarely at six. Much as I’ll always bring the lads along to try and get a game going if we’re understaffed, less than half a side is, even by my own admission, a little ambitious.
So, I set about doing what every lower league captain in my situation does, week in, week out, for little or no recognition other than the sheer pride of turning up on a Saturday with a full(ish) complement of players and thinking: “Yes, I bloody well did it.”
I texted, I phoned, I borrowed a winger from another local club who I knew didn’t have a game, and who owed me a pint because we helped his team out a few weeks back. I called up the Colts who I knew had just turned 17 and tried to woo them with the cachet of a senior debut – first through the tunnel and everything, promising no initiation ceremony.
I even spoke to one guy who I knew was still injured, to see if he’d bumble around with the backs on the basis he probably wouldn’t see much of the ball given that a) it was muddy and b) I had no scrum half. I even asked the guy who’d just done the MoT on my car because he looked like he’d make a useful forward.
I’m nothing, if not tenacious.
By Thursday, I almost had it in the bag. Fifteen living, breathing men of various sizes and ages were to pull on our coveted blue and yellow shirts, and we were going to defend the honour of the club at the very least by fulfilling the fixture. Some weeks, that’s an achievement enough.
Then, the bombshell hit. The first XV lost four players, two through a clash of heads at training, one through work commitments, one because he forgot it was his turn to have the kids.
By the time our 1st XV skipper had filtered off our talent, my 15 was 11, and I’d left no stone unturned. And I still had no scrum half.
It’s a tale that, no doubt, is told at many a rugby club over many a weekend, and it’s sad for the game when fixtures go unfulfilled.
Given our league position – 7th out of 10, with no risk of promotion or relegation – the points deficit from handing our opponents a walkover was academic. A lesser man, I’d like to think, may have waved the white flag of surrender at this point and decided to spend his Saturday drinking beer whilst cheering on the 1sts.
But that’s not me.
Besides, I knew the 1sts didn’t have a front row replacement on hand, and as a happy-go-lucky hooker, I didn’t really fancy turning up to watch, only to be asked if I had my boots in the car… I’d help the guys out all day long, but I’m just not suited to that level…
Instead, I called up our imminent rivals’ captain and explained my predicament. The young lad in question, Ash, was the kind of guy I’d love to have in my team, quite frankly. He, like me, was more concerned about getting a game underway than anything to do with league points, walkovers or shallow victories.
By Friday morning, we’d worked out that between us we had 30 lads who wanted a game of rugby. 11 of mine, 19 of his.
30 lads who wanted a game of rugby deserved one in our book, so the maths were simple…
So, on the Saturday afternoon, two-thirds of a team and a new-to-rugby car mechanic rocked up at their place with low expectations, but a sense of pride that we weren’t just conceding defeat.
What followed was 80 minutes of great rugby. They loaned us four players, and were decent enough to make sure they weren’t the worst four, but the ones best adaptable to the positions where we had gaps.
As to be expected, it was their game from very early on. Our defence was as you’d expect from a bunch of guys who’d never played together before.
Our attacking was plucky, and I take great pride in the fact that we crossed the whitewash not just once, but four times. Enough, indeed, for a losers’ bonus point, which, in the utterly unimportant scheme of things, is probably the point I’m most proud of this season.
The fact that they crossed our try line 13 times is immaterial, really.
After the game, the 30 of us did what rugby players do – had a pint together, a bowl of chilli, nominated our man of the match and dick of the day (For us, the former was a young lad called Jack who I’d recruited from the Colts only to pick up a monumental black eye, the latter was me, for missing a tackle on their winger only to carry my momentum into one of my own players and poleaxing him into touch).
But the best bit was later that evening, when idly browsing social media while relaxing in the bath with a beer (my wife, incidentally, deserves a medal for putting up with such self-indulgence on my part every Saturday).
Our rivals, rather than crow about their victory, had made a point of thanking us for putting in 100 per cent effort to turn up, being great sportsmen and for ensuring their boys (and ours) got a game of rugby when many other teams would have just thrown in the towel.
I take huge pride in that, and I made a point of sharing it with each and every one of my players because, on that Saturday, those lads epitomised everything that’s wonderful about this sport, and I’m dead proud of them to this day.
Final score? 77-22 to them.
On most weekends, a scoreline like that would hurt. On this occasion, it was a victory. Not for my team, but for the sport of Rugby Union and the tremendous people that play it.
And Ash, if you’re reading this, I owe you a pint, mate.