Rugby? Thanks, I’ll pass

60.1583A winter afternoon under a hard blue sky. Rugby players, panting, scattered across a field.

The home team trailing by a single drop-kick. The opposition, a juggernaut in the first half, now looking ragged; rumours of food poisoning starting to swirl.

The crowd rolls and roars, an ocean of anticipation, and then it breaks into a storm as the ball comes out. The scrumhalf rifles a flat pass; the flyhalf steadies himself, feeling the pull of the distant posts as he weighs the drop-kick that will define the rest of his life. And then a roar so loud that it seems the sky is a canvas being torn in half by a god reaching down to shake the foundations of the Earth.

Yes, it was quite a moment, that morning behind the primary school in the small Overberg farming town.

At least I think it was, because I wasn’t really fully conscious in the true sense of the word.

What I was, was frightened and confused. Because the flyhalf hadn’t kicked the ball. Instead he’d looked around him as six obese pre-teens with buzz cuts bore down on him, and he’d seen the only player on his team standing in space. Me.

I wasn’t being marked because I wasn’t a threat. My coach had parked me on the wing to keep me out of harm’s way and to prevent me from doing what I always did when the ball came to me: picking it up and kicking it into touch to make the running stop, if only for a few merciful seconds.

And yet now the ball was arcing towards me. I remember my despair that my teammates had chosen this moment to include me in their stupid game. I felt deeply betrayed. I looked at the sidelines, appealing for help from the sensible grown-ups, but I saw only a phalanx of unsympathetic parents: an impenetrable wall of polyester.

Someone was shouting at me: a father in the middle of the wall, a parody of an apartheid patriarch, straining his safari suit at the seams, his bristling moustache stained yellow by cigarettes, his face pale with fury, the veins and tendons on his neck standing out like whipcords lashing the back of a span of Voortrekker oxen.

“Fokken hardloop!” he screamed. And then someone dropped a piano on my head and hit me in the side with an ocean liner. The fat bastards had reached me, scuttling with nightmarish speed across half a field, like a pack of particularly swift crabs made of pink lard. I lay crumpled on the wet earth. The match was over.

I remember that man clearly, but without much ill will. For starters, he’s almost certainly dead now. This happened 30 years ago and nobody that angry or unhealthy could have made it through his 60s. Besides, if the 1992 referendum didn’t give him a stroke, I’m pretty sure the appointment of an English-speaking Springbok captain would have finished him off.

But the real reason I don’t hate him and his stupid rage is that I must have appeared astonishingly dense that morning. I must have looked as if I was farting about on a rugby field without knowing any of the rules of the game. Which was exactly the case.

Nobody had taught me the basics of the sport because they assumed I knew them. And, to be fair, in that tiny community it was a fairly safe assumption. In their universe it was inconceivable that a white boy would know nothing about rugby. When I’d asked my coach to explain the rules to me, he’d brushed me off, perhaps assuming I was making an esoteric joke that only English-speaking gay atheists would find funny. And so I played three or four matches, touched the ball twice, got sat on by lots of fat children, and never had the faintest clue about what was going on.

I remembered the assumptions of that cultural cocoon this week as Springbok captain Jean de Villiers told a radio station that it was “almost the responsibility” of every citizen to support the national rugby team in the coming World Cup.

It was a ludicrous demand. I mean, we’d all still be laughing if the captain of the national shuffleboard team told us it was a civic responsibility, like voting, to root for our team in next week’s Shuffle-Rama Super Slide-Off in Miami’s Final Countdown retirement village.

Yet nobody was laughing at De Villiers. Instead hands were reaching for hearts. National symbols were being dusted off. Marketing organ grinders and their monkeys were grinding out anthems.

We’re being encouraged, even subtly instructed, to join in a game – of identity, of loyalty, of patriotism – whose rules nobody has explained but which we’re expected to know. As for me, I’ve been bundled into touch, out of touch, as confused as I was 30 years ago on that cold, fresh field.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

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2 comments

  1. You’re not alone. I have probably watched over 80 games of rugby in my life and I still don’t know what the rules are. I played as a winger too in my youth. Even my father thought I sucked at the game. He was right.

    Thank you for the entertaining post.

    Liked by 1 person

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