Recently I started playing rugby union. I should stress, I have played the game before, at school plus a few games afterwards, when I was in further and higher 'education'. But it has been a long time since I picked up a rugby ball in anger.
I chose rugby union by the way, because, despite being a rugby league man to my core, playing league at the age of 38 is simply beyond me. The aerobic and anaerobic demands of the game are just too much. Being balding, overweight and having a bad knee does not preclude anyone from playing union, as I have discovered. The two occasions I've had pneumonia in the last 15 years don't seem to matter too much anyway. Nor the decade and a half spent indulging an obsessive passion for booze.This is a good thing, and shows that participating in sport is not actually as hard as it might appear.
It's worth writing about from a number of perspectives. Firstly, beginning a contact sport at my age is an interesting experience in itself. And the contact is not tickling and cuddling, despite what many 4th team games might look like to the uninitiated. My first game, an hour on the wing, saw me covered in bruises, from my shins to my shoulders. Soccer this wasn't.
Being Fit Enough
Of course, I have a reasonable amount of athletic ability to get me through, I have spent a lot of time playing soccer after all in the last two decades since I last played rugby seriously. I have run a reasonable amount and kept myself in reasonable shape, certainly after I stopped drinking some seven years ago. But thinking that you're fit is not the same as being fit, and being fit is not the same as being fit enough.
The training I've done with the club has been more interesting and more challenging than anything I've done physically in a while, and that includes running a half marathon. Originally, I just signed up to play touch rugby, but was talked into playing proper games too. The challenge of getting fit enough to cope with a game every week has been hard, but it gives some focus to my training and is something to strive for. The knocks and the bruises make it even harder, especially when my body is crying out for a rest. Taking a few days off from physical activity here and there has become crucial.
But my own personal physical battles are not necessarily the most interesting thing, important as they are to me. As a writer and journalist, the experience is also an interesting exercise in perspective. To be a participant, rather than an observer, is something which has not always been part of my life in recent years, as I've been paid to watch others doing things.
It may sound simplistic, but my empathy for professional sports people has increased massively. Not with the softies of professional football, for whom my respect has actually declined even further, but for people in contact sports, and sports which demand extreme fitness, it has increased massively. The endurance component in rugby is also huge; this is not a sport which is all about power and strength.
Heroes of Rugby
My heroes, in the sport of rugby league, produce some amazing feats of skill and strength each week. Playing rugby union has allowed me to see just how amazing some of these feats are. The pressure that a player comes under, in terms of fitness, aggression from the opposition and having limited time to make decisions and act, is something which I have really come to appreciate anew. Yelling at players from the terraces becomes a different experience, with me understanding once again just how difficult it is to give of your best all the time under extreme pressure.
As a novelist, rather than a journalist, the experience has also been interesting.I write a lot about group dynamics, about how people, especially men, act when they are together. In the past, my focus has been largely on how people work together and act in the workplace. Which is an environment which tends to make people into arseholes. If you want to see the very worst of people, go to work with them. That was one of the main themes of 'Stumbles and Half Slips'.
I have written a lot about people at play in the pub too, in 'Lescar', but again, if you want to see the very worst of someone, go and get pissed with them in a shithole pub. Negatives abound, so what has been interesting to me is how different a story it is when playing rugby.
I didn't know anyone at the club, Hallamshire RUFC, before I started going training with them, yet I've been welcomed without any reservations. This was something new for me, I'm used to having to make my way into groups of people on a wave of destructive negativity, a big gob and a sharp wit coming in handy.
This was different though. The whole thing was about encouraging people to do their best. There is also plenty of violence in rugby, league and union, so knowing that people are behind you is very encouraging. The extreme nature of the sport seems to bring the best out of people, in terms of heart, bravery, camaraderie and willingness to sacrifice self for team almost every time. Team talks have spoken of 'no blame, no whinging'. This is very different to football, a sport where blaming other people
for what happens is as much a part of the game as passing the ball.
Grist to Society's Mill
This is all grist to the mill as a writer. In my current fictional projects I'm sketching out ideas for a western and a novel based on the differences between the rugby codes, probably set in England just before World War Two. Playing rugby again has not only provided great insight in terms of how people behave in a 'battle' situation, but also re-connected my senses to the physical. The smell of mud, how the grass feels when you fall over, the strangely evocative sound of a shoulder connecting with someone's face, pain, surprise, sudden fear overcome by action, the sting of a blow to the shin, the instant defeats and tiny victories which occur in their hundreds throughout a game, and the sense of all pulling together for an intangible sort of success.
The game also places you in a ready-made community, where what we have in common with each other is more important than our differences. Class differences, as everywhere in England, are easily perceived, if you want to look for them, but they actually do not matter in this environment, certainly not on the pitch. Beyond disparaging and humorous references to countries like Australia and South Africa, where some of our players come from, nationality, race and religion are rarely, if ever, mentioned. Helping hands are frequently offered, whether for the benefit of the club or for each other. It looks very much like the kind of society I'd like to live in, to be honest.
If that sounds profound, it's meant to. As we live in an increasingly atomised society, with the communal ethic continually being eroded by those who prefer profit to people, it's something to seriously consider.
Zack Wilson is the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from Amazon.com.