Not our usual fare but with the holiday season upon us we thought we’d add a personal note to our regular musings. As the international season takes a much-needed break over the holidays, we thought we too would make a departure from our customary thoughts on the global game and add in a personal twist to reflect the mood of this special time of year.
As a result we’ve asked our resident scribe to look back over his own 50 year personal journey with our glorious sport. In doing so we hope to illustrate how international rugby in particular has come to reflect a myriad of values, which many of us hold so dear and reinforces the point that “it’s more than just a game”.
From North to South and everything in between – a lifetime’s connection with Rugby
As a passionate supporter of rugby for the last 50 years, I have marvelled at how much the game has changed, but more importantly how much it has always been in the background to moments in my own life that have shaped the way I look at the world around me.
Like many people, my introduction to rugby started at a very early age. As a five-year old schoolboy in New Zealand in the late 1960s, rugby was perhaps even more of a national religion then than it is now in the professional era. One had little choice in those days, but somehow the rough and tumble of the school playing fields was exactly where every little tyke missing his first few baby teeth wanted to be. As a totally legitimate excuse to get covered in mud and provide the washing machine with plenty of work, rugby was high on the list of priorities in every small boy’s mind in New Zealand. While I may have lost touch with them once I left New Zealand, some of those friendships forged on the playing fields of Russelly Park primary school in Christchurch remain poignant to this day – I can still remember my first ever “best mate” Graham, as clear as if it were yesterday. When we left school we would spend hours in our respective backyards, kicking, chasing and tackling each other over mini rugby balls. In 1969 I was just as thrilled being parked in front of our parents black and white TV watching New Zealand beat Wales in the second of two Tests, as I was watching those historic images of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface a month later (although slightly more excited that Neil Armstrong had the same first name as me).
Shortly after that I left New Zealand which as far as I was concerned, was sheer folly by my parents, and found myself uprooted to Canada. Sadly, I was to lose touch with the sport that had so shaped my early childhood days, as in Canada in the early 70s rugby appeared to be some sort of bizarre sport played only in the realms of Middle Earth. Instead I was surrounded by hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer. I wasn’t a great skater and spent far too much time falling over to be useful, and baseball to me seemed to be a mildly more exciting version of cricket which I had never taken to in New Zealand. With no kindred spirits like Graham around, I had to resort to playing imaginary rugby on my own in our backyard with a miniature American football.
As the years passed, and with no rugby on TV I gradually forgot about rugby until one fall day in Montreal in 1978. We’d just moved again, for the sixth time in almost as many years since coming to Canada, and now found ourselves in Montreal. As an English speaker and in a province caught up in the rapidly rising push towards the province’s first referendum on independence, schooling was proving a challenge. As my father was working for the UN’s civil aviation body based in Montreal, through a generous allowance I found myself at one of the city’s two private boys’ schools.
My transition to this new place of learning was not going smoothly. I struggled to fit in and also found myself on the wrong side of the school bullies. I had noticed that the school had a rugby programme, but felt that my own growth hadn’t kept pace with what was needed to survive on the rugby pitch, and as a result I would no doubt be brutalised even more by several of the school toughs who were also on the rugby team. I was further intimidated by the rugby coach who was a fierce Ulsterman and also the school geometry teacher, who regularly terrorized his students if he felt they were not paying sufficient attention to Pythagoras by slamming a thick rope on their desks to “focus the mind” as he put it.
On a grey September afternoon at the beginning of term, I was practising for the 200 metre sprint, as I felt that this was my safest option for after school sports. On the adjacent field I could hear Mr. Wright at full throttle admonishing a hapless group of forwards. As I reached the end of my first sprint, I noticed Mr. Wright gesticulating wildly at me. Fearing an encounter with the rope in geometry the next day should I pretend to ignore him, I approached him with more than a hint of trepidation. Much to my surprise I was greeted with a warm smile and a hearty handshake. He immediately suggested that I take a spot on the wing, and while I was at it try my hand at goal kicking as he was rather short in that department that year. I made the usual protests, I wasn’t big enough, hadn’t played since I was 7 among many – all of which fell on deaf ears. He assured me that despite his diminutive size he had been a devastatingly effective scrum half in his heyday. When I questioned my ability to bring down a loose forward at full throttle he expounded the efficacy of a skillful ankle tackle. In short, I wasn’t getting out of it.
What ensued was a remarkable two years which I wouldn’t have missed for the world and which rekindled my childhood love of the oval ball. In my first year, it was indeed the school of hard knocks, but what I realised was that Mr. Wright, despite his outward bluster, was one of the most talented and dedicated mentors and coaches I would ever have during my academic life. He was a man totally committed to the success of his charges, and one who simply brought out the best in us as both individuals and a team. By my second year, I had become an accomplished goal kicker and a respectable winger as part of a very successful school team. Much to my surprise in one of my first practices I flattened one of my arch enemies, who was our blindside flanker, and thereafter I was never troubled by the school bullies. Mr. Wright was passionate about rugby and his beloved Ireland and what both could teach young minds. I still have the fondest memories of sitting down with him and the team to watch VHS tapes of Ireland’s Five Nations games every year, as that was the only way to watch them in Canada in those days. In doing so he provided a fascinating insight into the history of rugby and its unifying force in his own divided country. As Canada looked to be torn apart by a referendum, they were lessons we all took to heart, as well as a bunch of us becoming passionate Irish rugby supporters from that day onwards.
I spent the remainder of my teenage years in Kenya, as my father’s work took him to East Africa. I immediately signed up for the school rugby team, and although still not the biggest teenager, I managed to be fast enough on my feet and able to outwit my burlier opponents. Africa had all the excitement and openness both on and off the pitch that young men and women at that age crave. While my studies may have suffered, the friendships I made on the rugby pitch with my teammates from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds would shape me for the rest of my life. Our school was not one of Kenya’s elite schools but it had a proud tradition, and our team of misfits were surprisingly successful, perhaps as a result of our brutal fitness regime imposed by a borderline sadistic Welsh coach. Nevertheless, one of our proudest moments was playing one of Zimbabwe’s premier schools, and beating them in a two match series. In our ragtag uniforms which consisted of a red cotton jersey which always faded to pink after the initial wash, we took on the boys from a newly independent Zimbabwe in their immaculate and very flash kit, which turned more than a few female heads in the stands much to our chagrin. I’d watched Ireland win the Five Nations that year, and remember feeling more than just a little pumped to try and replicate Ireland’s underdog success story in our own battle against Zimbabwe’s heavyweights.
With a heavy heart I left Africa behind and headed to England and university. I tried out for the rugby team, but by this stage I had definitely stopped growing at the required rate, while my teammates and opponents only seemed to be getting bigger. In an initial practise I was bundled into touch by a giant lock forward and as my body attempted to continue its trajectory to the other side of the pitch to avoid him, he and my knees continued their journey into the hoardings. That was the beginning of a string of injuries that essentially put my playing days to a quick and painful end.
It was the inability to play any more that perhaps heightened my enthusiasm for the sport as a spectator, to the point where it became a borderline obsession. Ireland still remained my team and I remember many a happy beer soaked afternoon watching the Men in Green have some genuine success for the most part in the mid 80s. While cramming for finals in my last year, I still managed to make time for the thrill of the inaugural World Cup in New Zealand.
After university my employment choices brought me back to Africa, and Southern Africa which itself was in the midst of massive change. Zimbabwe had only been independent for eight years, and South Africa’s troubled history looked to be on the brink of the same kind of transformation that was being hinted at as the Berlin Wall appeared to be on the verge of collapse in Europe. I spent most of my time at the end of the 80s and very early 90s in Botswana and Lesotho. I can well remember the excitement in a bar in Maseru, as I and the crowd watched the Springboks long-awaited return to international rugby against their most revered rivals New Zealand’s All Blacks in 1992, after South Africa’s painful isolation from international sport in the 1980s.
I then spent several years in a part of the world that like South Africa, was being torn apart by conflict – the former Yugoslavia. As the Berlin Wall fell, communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe fell like dominoes. Unfortunately Yugoslavia’s exit from its communist past ended in a brutal ethnic conflict that tore communities apart. In a time of darkness, I was once more humbled by rugby’s ability to bring people together. In the 1995 World Cup, my local staff knowing I was a rugby nut, managed to find me a TV and a means of obtaining reception for the entire tournament. One of my fondest memories is of staff from the three different sides of the conflict uniting with me around a flickering TV screen to cheer on the exploits of South Africa, as they sought to use the World Cup to heal the wounds of their own divided society. As we crowded around the TV in our office amidst the rubble of a once peaceful and culturally diverse city, we were all moved by the sight of Springbok Captain Francois Pienaar and South Africa’s first democratically elected President Nelson Mandela embracing the Webb Ellis trophy, and the power of this unique sport to bring opposites together on a foundation of unwavering mutual respect.
I was lucky enough to spend more time in Africa after Yugoslavia, and in particular South Africa. Although it wasn’t quite the same as I imagine what it might have been in 1995, watching South Africa win their second World Cup in France surrounded by some great South African friends in Cape Town was something special. The blood runs green in our house as my wife is a proud South African, so green jerseys whether they be Irish or South African are in plentiful supply. Our son wears both with pride and was thrilled to go and see South Africa play Wales in Washington this year, although he hopes his idol Johnny Sexton won’t retire before he gets a chance to see him play in green at the Aviva in Dublin.
I probably watch more rugby now than I ever have, family and work permitting, but still marvel at the thrill of the International game, and the unique respect shown by supporters to each other. I was fortunate enough to attend the last World Cup and although gutted at seeing my beloved Ireland knocked out of the quarter-finals yet again by an exceptional Argentinian side, I loved every minute of sharing in the Argentinian supporters’ party as the final whistle was blown. Once again I was humbled as the massive line of weary and devastated Irish supporters waiting for the train to London after the match, as one gave a large group of passing Argentinian fans a rousing round of applause.
In short why do I love this game? Because of the respect it holds as its core value more than any other sport I know. We can all cheer together, cry together and most important of all laugh together. Name a classic Test match, and you can probably remember exactly where you were, who you were with and what you were doing that day – I know I can! In fifty years of playing and watching rugby I have become part of a global family that has provided me with a wealth of memories, good times and remarkable friendships.
As we enter another World Cup year that perhaps promises to be full of more surprises than all the past 8 tournaments put together, we raise a toast to our great sport and all its glory. Happy holidays to everyone from me and the Lineout, and a thousand thanks to everyone who has read our musings over the last four years. Here’s to a 2019 that should provide us all with plenty of memories and LOTS to talk about!
2 thoughts on “Rugby – a personal journey”
A special writeup Neil. So pleased that you shared these rich experiences. I agree, it reallly is the noble sport. Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.
Thanks so much Micky. Really enjoyed doing that one. Brought back a lot of special memories. All the best to you for Christmas and the New Year and as always thanks for all the positive feedback over the last 4 years.