Tuesday, August 31, 2010
The best game?
My boys love hearing my Rugby stories. In particular, the time long ago when I had the misfortune of finding myself trapped at the bottom of a ruck with an opponent's teeth firmly clenched on my buttocks. They like the description of my agony and my utter inability, pinned beneath 1,000 pounds of sweating, hostile enemies, to do anything but scream like a sissy.
They also enjoy me telling them about the time, while playing for the University of Georgia, when my opposite number - affectionately known as the Assassin - tackled me late, my kicking leg still firmly planted on the ground. That one sent me to hospital for knee surgery. Months later, in Baton Rouge for the SEC tournament, my teammates had their revenge on my behalf. The boys appreciate the karma of that story, too.
It was a tough sport even back in my time. But my month in New Zealand has shown me just how much harder the game, long since professionalized, has become in the 20 years since I last sang dirty songs, drink in hand, after a good day on the field.
You don't see beer bellies on the pitch anymore. These blokes are built. You don't bump into the guys as they head off to their real jobs with briefcase in hand - as I once ran across Andy Irvine, the great Scottish Rugby hero of my day. The players are big, fit professionals now.
The game has changed, too. I'm not just talking about the hoisting at the throw-ins. It's a tough, bloody, non-stop game that takes a spectator's breath away. The game is awe-inspiring in its flowing mix of finesse and brutality.
In other words, I have become a fan all over again. But, while as a schoolboy I could always imagine myself in Irvine's boots - wasn't he the guy taking the same bus as me, after all? - now I can't even dream of stepping onto a Rugby pitch. And not just because I'm old and creaky. It is warfare out there, pure and simple. But still played by people who respect the game.
They always said that soccer was a gentleman's game played by hooligans and Rugby was a hooligan's game played by gentlemen. Watching the cynical shenanigans of soccer players compared to the pure, respectfull bliss of Rugby players, I think the analogy still stands.
But, my how the game has changed. I like it a lot.