On the tenth of October 1876 during a schoolboy game of a unique form of Football, a young boy by the name of William Webb Ellis caught the ball between his hands and run unto the opposite side of the pitch to touch the ball down on the opposite side of the pitch and score. That is the origin myth of the sport of rugby. A now international sport that has spread all over the world and spawned many derivatives including American football. One hundred and forty-three years later. On a cold winter night. Floodlights illuminate an empty pitch as two teams enter the gate. Organized conflict would occur between two groups shortly after.
On game days I follow a ritual to help me prepare for the eighty minutes of a rugby match. This time though the impending holiday season made it practically impossible to follow the ritual as impending deadlines had to be met. To compromise I decided to wake up earlier to accomplish everything I sought to do. Once that was done a bit of rest and relaxation before getting into the warrior mindset was deserved. Laying down in bed while listening to Jean Michel Jarre’s Oygène just to momentarily relax and to mark the end of the work day before preparing my mind and body for an eventual beating.
As soon as my mind wakes, I blast Iced Earth’s Stormrider and start to pack my bag before eating an apple. Once everything is ready thoughts of earlier matches come through as I analyze what I must do for the upcoming match. As a small prop (prop being one of the most physical positions in rugby) my thoughts converge towards improving my leverage and positioning in order to dominate my hulking opponents. With smaller size comes generally better speed and endurance but at the cost of having to be much more aware of the superior strength of the opposite props. For this match my main objective was to pursue a rabid work rate and to focus on getting beneath the other players’ center of gravity and smashing through their bellies with my head hard enough to knock them off balance and send them crashing backwards onto the ground. While individual objectives are important in the sport of rugby, it remains primordially a team sport and the disorganized efforts of fifteen players will not even cause the slightest dent in well-connected defenses. It was time to put Suffocation’s legendary Breeding the Spawn and to go meet with the team to get to the pitch and for the pre-match briefing.
I walk towards the car park where we all meet before driving to the stadium, half of the team are there while the others run try battle through traffic and their commitments so that we may all leave together as one. Despite the light-hearted conversation there is a certain tension in the air as this the last match of the regular season. A fairly mediocre season had left us in a precarious position with a draw necessary to qualify for the final tournament phase. The other team had a bizarre season full of crushing victories and bizarre losses to supposedly inferior teams, we had no idea except that they desperately needed a win to qualify. As usual we tried to guess what kind of team we were playing based on our mutual history this season. We eventually concluded that we were going to face adversaries that preferred to move the ball through physical play and would not attempt to dazzle us through fancy passes or getting the ball behind our defensive line by punting and outpacing us. We all packed into the cars and went straight to the stadium which stood on a hill at the highest part of town.
As soon as we arrived, we were met by freezing winds and the fading sunlight that would vanish as soon as we go changed. Each player received their shirt in the changing room and the moment I caught my number “3” I immediately put it on and ran to the pitch to start warming my body up. A few passing and running drills later, the team split up into forwards and backs. The forwards are the more physical players that famously contest for the ball in what is known as the scrum with the scrum being a set play where packs of forwards bind together and then push for the ball. The backs concentrate on passing the ball down the line to score with speed and finesse. The opposition appear on the other side of the pitch divided by the halfway line. We size them up from afar and see that while they have a few big players, they seem to be primarily made of fat than chiseled muscle. It seems that their best men seem to be the smaller, sneakier players and they won’t attempt to fight up front.
The referees calls for both captains and explains them the rules and the expected conduct before the deciding coin toss to see who kicks first and who gets to choose which side. They win the coin toss and choose to kick the ball to us. Our captain chooses to have the wind blowing against them and both sides set up. Now on the field and staring at my adversary as he prepares to charge me, excitement, anxiety, adrenaline and fear simultaneously kick in. This is the best time of any war, the stress just before as this is the time when a man feels most alive and decides whether he rises and fights or kneels and cowers in fear. There are only two options, glory or shameful defeat. The whistle blows and they kick the ball. Our lock fumbles the ball backwards during the catch (locks are the tallest players and tend to be the ones who catch the ball due to their height) and the ball goes right between my legs before one of our forwards catches and runs forwards, he makes good ground before getting tackled and the ruck begins to form (ruck being the contest for the ball after every tackle) as I find myself in front of my opposite who is an even smaller prop than me and gets lower than me ready to blast me backwards but I manage to sneakily grab his leg and flip him over to win the first of many battles. First contact has been established and the mind goes to auto-pilot as all that matters now is previous muscle memory and current physical condition.
We begin with our usual tactic of engaging them in a full on frontal assault which consists of using a forward to run with the ball so that he may draw in a defender before passing it to another forward to exploit the gap created and to suck them in before our backs pass the ball to the wing and try to score unopposed. The plan quickly fails as the team is uncoordinated and I get smashed backwards by my opposite number as no one is there to support me. They win the ball and decide to throw it around all the place in hopes of finding a wide enough interval to score. They make a substantial amount of ground but we manage to hold them from scoring. Our superior physicality starts to make an impact as we start to push them back and to connect with passes before camping out in front of their try line. Unfortunately greed gets the best of our players as each man tries to score alone for quick glory rather than thinking about the match and its implications. Through superior discipline and their camaraderie, they win the ball and start pushing us back. The end of the half is near and through a badly calculated punt from one of our backs, they quickly organize and pierce right through to score a try. The half ends and they are winning and have established themselves in front.
The second half begins and all the pre match jitters are gone as we run to tackle them from our kick. We smash them back and now with hunger and passion we finally start to take control of the match. The team is fully awake and functioning as one unit while keep slowly chipping away at their defense. My mind is completely turned off as the animal inside takes control. At one point I take the ball from the back of the ruck and run straight for 20 meters as my right hand is extended pushing the defenders backwards and my head is smashing through whatever it can. I eventually fall over the try line only to find a hand between the ball and the ground preventing me from touching down to score. At this point there is only one thing left to do and I decide to whack my elbow multiple times on to the arm holding and the individual obliges by removing his arm just before the referee whistles for the try. I slip out of my stupor and see my friends and family on the side who came to see me and there is genuine joy for a few seconds before the horrifying revelation that the score is now even and there is still just under half of the game left. The adrenaline wears off and lactic acid weighs down the muscles as numbing fatigue enters and from
here on out, every hit will hurt, every sprint will burn the lungs and everything must be done to not give up. The match continues as they fire back with two tries before we catch a second wind and manage to collectively re-enter the belligerent mindset to end the game with a draw.
Though a draw is always disappointing as it is the closest result to a victory for both sides, in this case it meant we were going through to the quarter finals to face better teams for a chance to win a championship. For now a well deserved bonding session over decadent fast food and mediocre beer was well deserved. Though individual accomplishments should always be sought out, there is something grander in reuniting as a small community to create something bigger than the sum of the constituents. Rugby is a physical sport that can be enjoyed at any level and combines war like physicality with teamwork and discipline. In a time of petty individualism and modernity, rugby hearkens back to a time where each person was willing to rise for something greater than their immediate wants.