The Rugby World Cup starts on Friday 18th September. So, fair warning, I’ll probably be writing about and around rugby for the next month and a half. And yes, this is non-fiction.
I was most concerned about what to wear.
Did I have the right shorts? The right shoes? The right socks? I mean, I owned all of these things, shoes and shorts and socks and shirts. But were they rugby shoes and shorts and socks and shirts, and would they make me fit in? Would I be there, noticeable, ostracised?
It was a remarkably sunny day for Scotland. Blue skies, the first hint of summer with a warm, almost thick, lazy feel beginning to develop in the air. The end of season barbecue, all the youth teams getting together on one Sunday morning and playing around, indulgent parents watching and laughing at the ungainly stumblings of their children. The treetops edging the ground waved gently in the slight breeze. The inexpressibly vast expanse of pitch, a full hundred yards long, was split into conceivable pockets of milling figures.
I stepped nervously out of the car. My bare legs shivered slightly, despite the warmth and the laughter that was coming from the jumbled chaos of the pitch. I stood and I watched for a second while my dad climbed out the other side of the car and locked it. I saw my friend, one of the only reasons I was here at all, in amongst a group of boys about my age, all chasing a ball about while shouting and laughing with one another. He was wearing a new looking red and yellow striped rugby shirt, the colours of the team, just like most of the rest. I saw studded rugby boots, oddly short rugby shorts. My heart fell right down into my astroturf football shoes.
I edged towards the group cautiously, loath to hold my dad’s hand in public. But I wanted to.
All the neuroses and uncertainties of a 12 year old boy swirled around in my head. My dad hailed my friend’s dad. He was standing there, solidly reassuring, beside the line of fluorescent cones staking out a portion of the enormous pitch. The cones were glowingly bright in the strengthening sunlight. My friend’s dad made some joking remark on my shirt, my brand new Glasgow Warriors top, and how it’d be ruined. I knew it, I shouldn’t have worn it, I’d got it wrong and I’d stand out and be abnormal, odd. I cringed to myself and stammered something back.
I hung around awkwardly on the sideline, unsure what to do. My dithering over fashion had made us late, so I’d arrived after everything else had started. One of the coaches – another player’s dad – eventually noticed a small boy standing lonely and longing on the edges. I was gestured over and slunk reluctantly forward. I could feel the gazes and the stares.
My friend was comfortable, among people, surroundings, a game he knew. I’d gone to games before, tossed a ball around a little. It wasn’t totally foreign. But playing was something different. I stood there, uncertain, unknowing, and unsure.
It hadn’t always been quite that way. A boy growing up in Scotland played football. The default option was assumed, reinforced through snatched matches and kickabouts at school, at breaks, at lunch, in gardens and in parks. Popularity, or at least what passed for popularity amongst small boys, was measured in footballing prowess.
So it seemed at the time, anyway, to someone with limited social tools and experience. Charisma and confidence and all those other inchoate concepts were well beyond any of us. And so the equation of being good at sport equalling popularity was set.
The problem was that I was mediocre as a footballer. I was physical and tough. I was fearless and bloody-minded and unafraid of pain. Alas, I was utterly unskillled in anything beyond tackling and hoofing the ball downfield.
But secondary school, that great heaving maelstrom into which we would soon be cast, offered hope. At secondary, see, rugby was the school sport. There were lingering, tantalising visions of playing rugby in the playground, of being picked first, of being cool and popular and maybe even having the attention of girls.
Which led to that Sunday morning standing on a rugby pitch, in the middle of a crowd of people yet feeling utterly lost and alone. There would have been drills, exercises, honing some obscure skill for some mysterious purpose. There must have been aimless running around flags and between markers punctuated by limp heaves of the ball. There will have been things that I don’t remember, lost in the rush of adrenaline and shortness of breath and the sheer thrill of doing.
Then one of the coaches announced that we were going to play a game of touch to finish. I had no idea what touch was until it was explained to me in an aside that it meant rugby without tackling. Instead of full-blooded contact, the bodily thump of a tackle was substitued for a light two handed grasp around the waist.
The explanation didn’t matter. I still didn’t know what I was doing. I still had no idea who anyone around me was or where I should be going.
The game started. There was running and shouting, the tangled, colourful mess of children loping around a pitch chasing a ball. I was silent, still uncertain what to say. I knew nobody’s name. I didn’t know what I’d do with the ball if I got it.
I followed the crowd and chased back and forth, stopping when it was dropped, wishing that I could somehow become invisible. I stayed as quiet as if I was. The potentiality of someone throwing me a pass was terrifying.
One of the players on the other team broke free somehow, evaded the grasping arms of our team and raced clear. Everyone else chased after, and so did I.
Somehow, I gained on him. He was struggling to run full speed while carrying an awkward, egg-shaped ball, and the pitch framed by those glowing cones was more than long enough to make a 12 year old tire and slow. I was still gaining on him, more and more with each stride, I was going to catch him. I stretched out my arms, reaching for his waist, looking to grab and touch and-
I felt something hit my trailing foot. My legs twisted and caught. The blue sky flurried into the grass and I was lying there, panting, sweating in the hot sun. I picked myself up, wondering what had happened. The player I had been chasing lay there as well, the ball resting on the grass a couple of feet from him.
“Um, just touch, OK? We don’t want anyone to get hurt,” the coach said. A couple of the other guys were looking at me with grins on their faces, friendly glints in their eyes.
As it turned out, I’d been tripped as I was reaching out. And had fallen forward, arms outstretched, and chopped my man down in a perfect form tackle round the knees. He’d dropped it, and everyone was a bit uncertain what to do with the new guy who clearly couldn’t follow the rules or simple instructions.
Then someone picked the ball up, restarted and ran in for a score. Everyone quickly forgot about my unintentional violence in the debate over fairness, and the coaches decided that enough was enough. Training was over. Go and have a burger.
We trooped back over to the clubhouse, my friend and our dads and I. As we were walking there, my friend’s studs scraped in the gravel, making crunching, grinding noises as they wore down.
“Hey David, even if you weren’t supposed to do it, you made a pretty nice tackle,” my friend’s dad laughed.
“Yeah, it was awesome,” my friend agreed.
I tried to explain that it was all an accident, that I had been tripped and that didn’t mean to tackle him. That I’d been following the rules and that it was unintentional and that it wasn’t my fault.
It didn’t matter, though. They laughed it off and ignored my stumbling clarifications. All I was left with was the memory of the instant of contact, of cutting another person down with perfect, surgical precision. That and the fact that my friend thought it was awesome.
We got to the clubhouse and stood in line. Burgers were being handed out one at a time, scrupulously slowly, to boys of all ages. And not just all ages, either. All shapes and sizes, all types of people and personalities, mingling and talking and eating and laughing. I spotted faces I knew now, faces I recognised from that practice and that game.
I played rugby for the next decade. And even now, when I come home, the question is always asked.
“Hey, you fancy a match on Saturday?”
I’ll freely admit that this is coloured by remembrance. Y’all should probably take stuff written about things that happened more than a decade ago with a couple of grains of salt. And know that the perceptions of a 12 year old idiot are a little lacking.
That is, a central defender in the classic British mould.