Rugby is a wonderfully entertaining game. All of the complexities and nuances of rules, equipment and position are eliminated with the very simple guideline we all used as kids: kill the guy with the ball. Now another nice thing about rugby is that it is actually one of the safest team contact sports, which surprises many people. But remember that most injuries in football or hockey come about because I either have a club that I can hit you with, or my head and shoulders are armored such that I can blow your rib cage apart without damaging my own head and shoulders. In rugby, I can’t hit you any harder than my shoulder can take, so there’s some built-in feedback to prevent people from going totally crazy. Which is not to say you won’t walk away with a few bruises and a chunk of skin missing here and there. My lady of that era called me ‘The Iceman’, from the number of icepacks I’d strap on after a good game.
One of the other nice things about rugby is that it is quite a social sport. I believe the old quote is “rugby is a game invented by hooligans and played by gentlemen”, thus leading to instances such as when I once cut a monster of a guy down with a standup hit to get him up off his feet and then a quick sideways twist to finish the job. You never want the big guys to fall on top of you: a simple transfer of his momentum from forward to down is all that is needed. He toppled like a tower out of Stonehenge, then he bounced up, grinning, and shouted “great tackle laddie” and we ran to catch up with the play.
The social aspects of rugby led to my first big trips off of the farm. Rugby clubs have a tradition of hosting guest clubs from other countries, and they all take great pride into making sure that all of their guests enjoy the visit, on and off the field. On our tour of Hong Kong, the guys were relentless in making sure we had a great time! They had an interesting custom of awarding a HK Rugby Club tie to one player on the opposing team: whoever they had to change they game plan to deal with. I was shocked when they picked me; I hadn’t had a great game by my measurements. I do remember one crazy play when their man-mountain of a prop got the ball on a breakaway run. He was literally twice my size! Normally for a big guy, you wrap your arms around him and torque to the side. Then you just need to hang on until his legs enter your circled arms and physics takes over. But he was just too big to wrap my arms around, so I just stood there, no plan except somehow I would at least slow him down. He threw quite a good head fake, which I might have bitten on if I had had a viable plan to tackle him 🙂 Instead, I held my ground, grabbed on as he steamrollered over top of me and somehow brought him down.
The next trip was spending a few weeks in New Zealand, and one of our hosting clubs was a Maori team located at the Bay of the thousand Islands. Now, New Zealand is justifiably famous for the quality and enthusiasm of the rugby so we had a great time (I’ll tell those stories later). New Zealand is also justifiably famous for its sheep, and in a sensible cost-saving measure, the rugby pitch – a beautiful, flat field with luscious rich grass – fed the local sheep, who in turn kept the field quite closely cropped for rugby games. In hindsight, the downside of this should’ve been obvious, given that sheep are voracious eaters but not very good at digestion…
As we lined up for the first kickoff, I noticed these, well, sort of deflated rugby ball shapes scattering the field, a puddle of brown leather if you will. Now we’ll have to pause the story for a second here while I describe my job on the rugby field, which may basically be summed up as “find where the ball is going and get it”. If a player from the other side has the ball, remove him from said ball. And if the ball is bouncing aimlessly on the field, slide down on the grass and scoop up said ball, bouncing elegantly to your feet en route. And now we can return to those amorphous puddles of brown leather dotting the field…
As I slid forward to scoop up the real rugby ball, one of the faux rugby balls appeared in my view and quickly gave up the mystery: they were not in fact deflated rugby balls, but rather fermenting, semi-liquid piles of fecal material. As it turns out, sheep dung is composed of very small mushed up bits of green grass that escaped the sheep’s digestive process, intermixed with various fluids and gases that can really ruin your day. And all of these unmentionables had been sitting in a neat pile, fermenting slowly under the warm New Zealand sun, creating, essentially, a poo bomb: a gelatinous missile with a firm outer coating. So when some poor player, such as myself, slides into one of these monstrosities, the leather-like shell remains firm while its innards grow increasingly pressurized. And when the shell finally rips apart, it is no metaphor at all to say that “the shit has hit the fan”… Highly pressurized, unbelievably grotesque substances spewed in all directions, and all I could do was watch this slow-motion horror show, as my trajectory took me inexorably into the malodorous maelstrom. Ick, ick and ick again. And I know my icks…
There is no real way in which one can gracefully recover from such an explosion, especially while a few tons of Maori players are laughing their asses off at you, while thundering down to reclaim the ball. Frantically wiping my eyes, I tried to make a break for it, but to no avail. And just to add insult to injury, I ended up under a heap of Maori butts, and on top of yet another explosive sheep bomb.
What makes it worse, is that for the rest of the game, whenever I went to retrieve the real rugby ball, another one of these landmines seemed to be lying in wait. So you figure that after you slid into a few, the shock is over, like jumping into cold water or grabbing a handful of maggots. No such luck. For the first time in my life, I was totally, completely grossed out. I had to slide into balls holding my breath and with my eyes closed, hoping to escape the worst of it. But extra bonus points when you tackle somebody and manage the vectors so he becomes your poo bomb detonator/screener! It was also very cool to do more on the offensive end for a change of pace. Normally I’m at the bottom of rucks and the offense runs without me. But New Zealand teams have an up-tempo game style, so I got more offensive time than normal.
I got two good runs in our New Zealand games. One started by ripping the ball out of a maul and spinning off of the side, end-zone bound. That turned out to be the hardest twenty yard run of my life. Your average Maori looks like a squat block of rock and these guys start playing rugby as soon as they could toddle down a field. Fighting off three talented boulders, even one at a time, was exhausting! But by bouncing off of them in sequence – think pinball machine – I got in the end zone. Now at that point, scoring is usually pretty easy: touch the ball to the ground and start bringing your trip-hammering heart under control. Alas, the Maori guys had been taught to grab a guy in the end zone and hold him up in the air whilst they peeled him away from the ball. If you can’t touch the ball down: no score. And these rather intent fellows added up to a few hundred pounds with a mission much like mine: get the ball. I was losing the battle to start, but I finally got my dander up; these guys weren’t ‘playing fair’ by my rules (holding a guy up is legal, but tacky). I managed to dredge up some strength from somewhere, writhing and twisting my way down, and scored. I was soooo drained that I had barely enough energy left to breath: standing became optional 😉
My other long run was perhaps a little whacked out, but it did work. I had taken a hit but managed to bounce off of him and kept my knees off of the ground (knee-ground contact means a tackle and that means you have to let go of the ball). I still kept trying to run, but I had trouble getting my feet back under me, especially when a number of large men are trying to flatten me. Eventually, I noticed that they were having trouble getting a solid hit on me because I was only a couple of feet off the ground! By holding the ball cradled in one arm, my two legs and second arm formed a tripod that was surprisingly effective at making some yards, keeping me off the ground and breaking tackles. I made about twenty yards on the play (good) but eventually I got embarrassed at the weird ‘run’ style, fought my way up to standing and running normally, and was instantly smacked down (bad). I took the Best Player cup that game, which all players are obligated to keep filled all night!
There are more rugby stories to follow, as well as some amusing stories from University wrestling and from modern dance classes. Then I discovered Ultimate Frisbee. Such a great sport! I gave up all my other sports to focus on Ultimate. I made it twice to the World Championships (in Vancouver and Scotland): lots of stories there too.
Even rugby practice sessions are fun! Once we were running a touch-only scrimmage. I laid out and just barely tagged a guy with both hands. He was pissed and started ranting something along the lines of I had missed entirely, and even if I hadn’t missed, wimpy little slap tags shouldn’t count. So next kick off, I muttered to the kicker “hang a high one over Viking boy” and I sprinted in for the kill. He caught the ball just as I launched myself into a flat out dive at his rib cage. At the last possible second, I turned myself sideways and grazed by his side, loudly slapping both of his hips as I went by, shouting “TAG!” and scaring the absolute shit out of him. A good example of unconscious thinking; I had no actual plan, just a notion of pointing out that playing tag is not so bad, and that he shouldn’t call me a liar. As I ran towards him, the world faded to black and the next thing I know, I’m airborne and about to crush his ribs; I had to adjust, literally, on the fly 😉
I’ll finish this batch with another funny-rugby instance: I broke through a line out once and managed to snare the scrum half before he could get a pass off. I wanted the ball for a breakaway run, but I just couldn’t winkle it away from him. I don’t know where the idea came from, but suddenly, I just picked the guy up, ball and all, and started running downfield with him, and by corollary, with the ball as well. 😉