When it comes to having a mid-life crisis, some men go and buy themselves a sports car, or take up flying lessons.
Personally, I’m scared of heights, and I get my thrills behind the wheels of cars that are the same age as I am, so neither of those options held much appeal. Instead, I chose rugby. Or, moreover, rugby chose me.
Back in 2013, I’d just become a father for the third time, I was working in a high pressure communications job in a large corporation and I was spending money as fast as I could earn it. I needed something that would give me a momentary escape, a feeling of purpose beyond that of hunter-gatherer-provider.
I also have a wonderfully supportive wife, so when I told her, a few days before my 36th birthday, that I wanted to focus my ‘me-time’ on rugby, and by that I meant actually going out and playing it rather than watching it in the pub (I was already extremely proficient at the latter), she smiled at me as if I was an idiot and told me to go ahead.
I’m not sure, though, that she expected me to go the distance. I think she assumed I’d turn up at a couple of training sessions, get hurt, come home slightly broken and realise I was a bit rubbish. All of which is exactly what happened.
But something else happened, too. In among the knocks and bruises, most of which were delivered by lads at least a decade younger than me, the realisation dawned that I’d been putting off for years, something that I should have done ages ago. Not only was I keeping fit (if hobbling around with a suspected broken rib can be deemed as such), but I was discovering both an inner freedom and a place of sanctuary.
Here was a place where it was okay to smash into people. Not the idiots who’d made my day such a pain in the proverbial, but thoroughly decent men who were quite happy to suck it up, or who even encouraged me to dish it out.
That place of sanctuary was (and still is) a small but ambitious rugby club on the outskirts of St Ives, Cambridgeshire, and – five years on – I’m truly honoured to say I’m about to begin my third season as captain of St Ives RFC’s 2nd XV; an honour bestowed upon me because I once mistakenly put my hand up in a committee meeting (into which I had been dragged for my alleged marketing skills), but which has given me an immense sense of pride, achievement and personal accomplishment. But not because I’m any good…
I’ll be extremely honest with myself, here. I’m actually pretty rubbish at rugby. Week-in, week-out, I play alongside guys who are younger than me, but also immensely more experienced. That means they are usually significantly more talented than I am, too. But, I’m bigger, older and wiser than many of them so I have the nouse to play front row, where a lot of the younger and smaller lads don’t want to put their heads. That’s cool. It means that, despite my limited ability, I more often than not get a game.
More importantly, though, not one of those guys has ever judged me. It’s not the rugby way. If I’m prepared to go out on that pitch and put in 100% of whatever limited skills I have, they’ve all got my back, and so far as I can, I’ve got theirs. They are my friends and comrades, and we are there for each other – no man is greater than any other.
The moral, here, is that if you think you’ll enjoy playing rugby, you probably will. And age is not a barrier, nor an excuse. It was, for me, a huge mental barrier for far too long, and I left it quite late to begin my rugby career. But the highs, lows and laughs, knocks, sprains and hangovers I’ve experienced have made me feel truly alive in a way I haven’t since I was a young man. Plus, I’ve made some truly terrific friends, aged 17 to 70 – great people each and every one.
If you think rugby is for you, even if it’s just a tiny little bit, don’t stop and think about the barriers (of which age certainly isn’t one). Just go along to your local club, tell them who you are and why you’re there, and you’ll be welcomed with open arms. It’s a sport that’s unique like that, and I speak from experience. I’m also proud to know I’m not alone…