I remember the first conversation I had when I went to my club for the first time.
I turned up at the training fields, found the head coach, and said I wanted to play rugby. The coach, who looked like he would have been a seriously dangerous lock in his day, said loudly “Well, this is the right place!” after some comments about coming to the right club instead of the other local opposition (expletives removed for decency’s sake). Then I was asked what position I played.
“Ermm….I’ve never played club rugby before in my life. Only run-arounds in the park. Hope that’s not a problem”, said I, also hoping I wouldn’t be quietly shown the door.
Instead, I was led to the lowest grade team and as they say the rest is history.
I grew up in Sydney until I was 8, with uncles, cousins and dad who all supported and loved rugby. My cousin played league until he was 12, my uncles were fierce North Sydney Bears and Wallabies supporters until the club folded, and my dad has always been a Cronulla Sharks supporter, as well as catching some Wallabies games when he can.
When the family moved to Adelaide I was asked at the start of the school year if I wanted to play footy. Thinking it was the game my friends and I played in the schoolyard in Sydney I later discovered I’d signed up for this weird game where you kicked all the time, passed with this odd motion and, most horrifying of all, you could pass forward! As I moved through my teenage years, I played some sport, but not much. A bit of AFL (albeit with a curved run-up and drop-kick, which team-mates found hilarious), a bit of touch, and a bit of soccer and cricket. Rugby was still in my blood though, and I somehow always found time to follow the latest score from the Wallabies internationals or NRL games.
Early last year I made the move from very casual spectator to player when I found out about my club through a friend. A Seth Effrikan with a very strong Afrikaner accent, he was not only surprised to find out an Aussie could drop-kick a ball, but also that I knew my halves from the props. Piquing my interest, I soon found myself making the trip down to the club to get involved.
Rugby union is one of the most divisive sports on the planet. Supporters (usually hand over heart and with tears in their eyes) proudly say it’s ‘the game they play in heaven’, whereas detractors are likely to loudly call the game ‘a bunch of poofs running around jumping all over each other in tiny shorts’ (somehow, you never see the latter group saying that about the game when a forward pack is nearby, but that’s another thought for another day). Soccer may come with hooligans, but we acknowledge the skill involved. AFL, to me personally, is like watching seagulls fight over a chip at the beach, but the stamina needed in astounding. League is like just running at a brick wall for five phases, but mental toughness needed is amazing. Rugby union is polarising, however: you either love it, or you hate it. Those who are in the middle ground are hard to find.
When all is said and done though, I have never found another sport that is more inclusive or lacking in pretence, as well as being full of camaraderie. Far from the racist slurs we’ve seen in soccer recently and the seemingly almost-monthly assault accusations against AFL and league players, union remains a game virtually squeaky clean in it’s image (sans a recent nudie run by Zac Guildford), respectful of officials and the game itself, and notorious for it’s ability to bring together not only it’s fans but it’s players as well.
I read earlier that the Caveman of France himself Sebastien Chabal was disinterested in rugby until he played a club game at 16, experienced the fellowship between players after the game, and from then on was a committed rugby union man. I could say that I play rugby for the same reason. Tackling a man on the break, posting up to protect your mate and the ball, going on the offense through a hole in the line and finding yourself free and with support, they are all wonderful reasons to play the game. However, I would be lying if I said they were the main reasons I play rugby. They’re certainly great reasons to take to the field every Saturday, but they aren’t the reason I turn up to training twice a week, and to games on a Saturday afternoon.
From the very start, I was made to feel included. My complete lack of skill was no impediment at all. “We all started from where you are now”, I remember one of the props saying. I was encouraged right from the start to get in amongst the action and simply enjoy myself. On my first training session, I was run over like Lomu ran over Catt, as well as elbowed in the face leaving me with a decent bruise across the bridge of my nose. And yet I couldn’t have been happier.
Instead of feeling like an outsider intruding upon the hallowed ranks of a team already bound by years of playing together, I was welcomed with handshakes, jokes about being a new player, and plenty of advice. From then on, I rarely missed a training session. The lowest grade team in the senior levels of the club they might have been, but as the club president has said many times “you blokes are the soul of this team, and what rugby should be about”. I couldn’t have been happier to experience first-hand what the game is truly about: comradeship.
Rugby union breeds that bond between teammates. It encourages steadfastness on the field, and solidarity off the field. On the field, you stand together and face your opposition with grit and passion. You don’t worry for your own chance to score a try, but you do your utmost to support your teammate on his run, or stop the try that may let your team down.
The world becomes a larger place when you step onto the pitch. You feel disappointed when you let the team down. Personal mistakes are rued greater than normal, simply because you’ve let your team down. You want to go that extra metre, that extra phase for the man next to you, and you want to go that distance when he goes forward too.
When I came to the club and to the game, I had low confidence and a complete lack of belief in myself and my abilities. In a way which no other sport has been able to do, rugby gave me confidence. I was surrounded by teammates who were there to support me, playing a game that was authentic and tough, finding that I was more capable than I ever realised. With my teammates behind me and with my new-found self-confidence, I found that I had no qualms about driving through a tackle or making a tackle of my own against a taller winger. Even in other parts of my life, friends noted a stark contrast between the Ben that existed before he played rugby and the Ben after he took to the field.
Ultimately, what rugby boils down to is purity and honesty. In a personal sense, it’s an intangible you feel when you think of your teammates and your club. You believe in them, and they believe in you, and it’s an authentic and true relationship. But purity and honesty encompasses the whole game. No other sport requires that players call an umpire ‘Sir’ (which bring strong penalties when this isn’t complied with). No other sport shows each person’s character as much as rugby, with each man or woman asking questions of themselves while they are on the pitch. No other sport brings the opposing sides together like rugby. We throw ourselves at each other with full gusto, and we embrace each other afterwards simply due to the enjoyment of playing honestly with all our courage.
Rugby union is a bastard’s game played by gentlemen. We collide, physically and personally, and we feel the purity of the game in that. We give our all, ask for no quarter, receive none in return, and we understand our teammates and opposition better in that 80 minutes than we might know our best friends outside of the game. Rugby is brutal and challenging, but it has honesty and purity, and I bloody love it.
*Heading into his second year as a player for Palmyra Rugby Union Club in Perth, this weekly blog series is an insight into a young, and new, player’s mind. Names have been omitted for writer’s own safety during tackling drills.