It’s a rough generalisation but I’ve observed that there are two attributes which help towards being an effective rugby player.
The first is to be large. The second is to be fast. The very best players seem to be those who are large and fast.
When I played rugby at school I was small and slow.
I wouldn’t say that people at the school I went to were obsessed by the game, but participating in rugby certainly came to be seen as an important factor in boosting your social standing. Those who played for the first team were allowed to wear a different coloured tie than other pupils and were generally feted and celebrated by the teachers.
This was despite the fact, which seemed glaringly obvious to me, that this preferential treatment cultivated and encouraged in some an unwarranted sense of entitlement and magnified existing character flaws.
To put it more simply, a small number of the players were bullies. But because they played rugby, much of the thuggish and loutish behaviour was tolerated or ignored. Indeed, they were often portrayed as ‘lovable rogues’.
This is not to assert or even suggest that such behaviour is typical of those who play rugby. Most of the players I knew were perfectly decent and reasonable. A couple were my friends. Our school’s outstanding player, who later won The Heineken Cup playing for Ulster, was never anything other than friendly and fair in my limited dealings with him.
But it is undoubtedly true that the few who displayed aggressive behaviour towards weaker kids were indulged. Indulged because they were good at rugby.
Neither would I wish for it to be inferred that my teachers in proper academic disciplines ever treated me with anything less than perfect fairness. That would be unfair. I have no doubt they gave their best but, in truth, I revealed very little of myself for them to work with. I was a poor student. There’s only so much you can expect a teacher to do.
I’m strangely proud that a small number of my former teachers now read this blog. I certainly never did anything to warrant their loyalty.
What I’m driving at is this. A school is a community. A community must rally around something and, in this case, it became rugby. Our team reached the final of the Schools’ Cup when I was in sixth year and it caused a minor sensation. It’s easier to rally around a successful rugby team than around the quiet kids, the ones who have trouble looking you in the eye. And nobody wants to hear about the faults of those who have driven the adventure.
In every community there are those who fall through the cracks.
I was forced to play rugby at school for three years. This was the minimum period you were expected to compete before you could give it up. I despised every moment and got nothing from it. It fractured my already brittle confidence, displayed my physical frailty in front of others and made me a target for rough treatment from stronger kids. I dreaded the double Games period every week like it was a death sentence. I was usually unable to sleep the night before rugby and would be reduced to a state of physical and mental terror before going out onto the pitch. I know that several of my peers had similar feelings of doom about being yelled at while they were standing, trembling in a muddy field. Sadly those who taught rugby seemed to have no idea how to deal with us who had little aptitude for the game other than dripping abuse and mockery in our direction. The rugby pitch was not the place for empathy.
This was done in the name of education. At the time I was firmly of the view that it was destructive and damaging. Three decades on I remain convinced of that.
Our school was relatively small so there were just enough boys in a year to make up three teams, A, B and C.
For a short time in first year I found myself (remarkably) in the A side before my limitations at the game were exposed. When it was quickly revealed that I preferred not to touch the ball, to tackle or to be tackled, I was relegated to the B side.
On one occasion I remember our B team playing against a team from Coleraine Inst (I would have been in second year at the time). We were beaten 76-0. On the minibus on the way back to school our sports teacher told us that he had been in the job for decades but had never witnessed anything so ‘disgraceful’ as our efforts. The then principal refused to read out the score at assembly the next day, such was the obvious shame.
The sad irony of the whole affair was that I was far from the worst. I actually liked sports and was a useful footballer. I just wasn’t very good at rugby. There were several kids who disliked any participative sport who were forced to compete and I can only assume it was worse for them. But in my case the only thing that three years of playing rugby achieved was to push me towards having a dread of taking part in any physical activity which had a direct competitive element. This lasted for many years. It ruined my enjoyment of other sports.
Games was timetabled for one double period each week and one session of compulsory practice after school. The basic format was some running and exercises to warm up, perhaps some passing, tackling or scrummaging drills and then a practice match.
The practice match usually consisted of the A side playing against the B side. There was an obvious flaw in this. The A side were better. Bigger, stronger, faster, fitter, nastier. They were much, much better than us.
This resulted in a series of lopsided matches which, frankly, I could see no value in. The A players pushed us aside like annoying wasps as they racked up try after try. It certainly did nothing for our morale to be so thoroughly beaten on such a regular basis and I couldn’t see how it benefited the A side to be facing such feeble competition.
One week I actually pulled together the courage to put this point to the rugby teacher. Would it not make more sense, I wondered, to mix the teams up a bit? If you had some of the better players on either side then it might make for a more even encounter?
He looked at me, a mixture of scorn and amusement in his eyes. Then he said: ‘Well if I did that then you’d never get any better, would you?’
I stared at him. I can only presume these words made some sort of sense to him within his head when he uttered them.
And so it went on. A seemingly unending series of dismal one-sided practice matches. I was on the pitch for many of them, clinging to my allocated spot on the left wing, as far away from the ball and as close to the changing rooms as I could manage.
But sometimes when you dig a batch of spuds you uncover one that’s a funny shape. There’s often that one day when, for no reason that you can identify, things are a little different. Perhaps the sun was shining. Perhaps the wind was blowing in a different direction. Perhaps the A side were missing a few players, maybe they were not properly focused on the usual procession of sacrifice.
For whatever reason on that day (I was in third year at this point), things were a bit different. The match was competitive. One of our forwards seemed to have woken from a lifelong coma and was demanding the ball and roaring straight into the A side’s pack with a previously undiscovered relish.
This one boy’s enthusiasm seemed to be spreading throughout the side. I remember we scored a fine try when the ball was worked through several pairs of hands in the back line before one of the smallest kids in the year touched down in the corner. It was hard to know what was more satisfying, seeing the unfettered joy on his face or how quickly the backs in the A side turned on each other, mouthing abuse and blame.
Even I was carried along by the shift in momentum. I threw myself into a tackle when a much bigger boy ran at me. In textbook fashion my arms snaked around his waist and then slid down towards his ankles. Unfortunately instead of falling he just kept running and I was dragged along the grass behind him like Indiana Jones in the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when he clings on to the speeding Nazi truck.
But despite it all we were still losing. Although only by a few points rather than the usual avalanche. I was aware that we could still win with a try and there were probably only a couple of minutes of play left.
A scrum was formed on the left side of the pitch. I was hugging the left touchline as ever. The ball was fed into the gap between the opposing packs by the A side’s scrum half.
And then something unusual happened.
The ball popped out of the opposite side of the scrum to which it had just been fed, landing just a couple of feet in front of me. For a few seconds nobody seemed to notice. I had a moment of panic. Was I even allowed to pick it up?
I grabbed the ball from the grass.
Then I ran like I was being chased by death itself.
Now I know what you’re thinking. I’m giving you a lovely story about how I scored the winning try in the dying moments of the game. Not a bit of it. It soon became clear I had nothing like the pace needed to reach the opposition line. Indeed if I was thinking anything at all in those moments it was ‘How the feck do I get rid of this fecking ball?’
As I ran I glanced back and could see two of the faster, larger A players hurtling towards me, their faces full of bad intentions. No way did they intend losing to the Bs. They were clearly going to put me down. But just behind them, I also saw a B player, red cheeked and panting, struggling to keep up.
I veered further left and waited until the two A players were right upon me, grabbing desperately at my neck. Intuitively I knew they would both want to tackle me, to impose maximum damage. Just as they collared me I hurled the ball backwards, over my shoulder.
Where, quite astonishingly, it landed right in the arms of my teammate, who now had a clear run to the opposition line to secure the most unlikely of victories.
Except it didn’t quite work out that way. I hadn’t learnt very much in three years of playing rugby, but what I had learnt was that in order to score a try you must ground the ball. You have to touch it down.
As I crashed painfully to the ground under the weight of two larger, stronger boys I saw my teammate run unopposed between the opposition posts.
What happened next could be put down to panic, ignorance, excitement, defiance. I simply don’t know.
Rather than touching down the ball down, he hurled it to the ground in the manner of an American footballer celebrating a touchdown. The ball bounced straight back up again, hitting him in the face and knocking him over.
At this point the teacher blew his whistle. The A side had won. Just like they always did. We all stomped back to have a shower and get ready for the next class. It was unusually subdued in the changing room. Nobody on either team seemed to really want to talk about what had happened.
Shortly after this I was able to give up playing rugby. I felt like I had been massively unburdened, like a long-endured tumour had been removed. I remember feeling a certain levity which lasted for days. Perhaps life was worth living after all.
It’s so obvious as to be barely worth pointing out, but no child should ever be made to feel this way. To be so grounded in misery for the sake of a game.
It’s right that children should be encouraged to try as many things as possible. Give them every opportunity you can.
And it’s equally true that sometimes you have to persuade a child to persist. To get them to overcome their fears and find their potential.
But one of the surest truths of my lifetime was that I was never going to make a rugby player. The same could be said of countless other young boys of my generation. And it was surely equally obvious the desperate unhappiness that was being caused by forcing us to play.
And then for a school to build an honours system around the very practice which caused so much habitual dolour, when so many kids had already been made to feel like less than they should have been; it was…..well I’ll choose my word kindly….it was unfortunate.
My son will be going to secondary school in a few years. I hope to Christ things are better by then.