Saturday morning rugby games transform the average nine year olds into uniformed, helmeted, booted, and mouth-guarded Commandos, who are filled to the top with energy by means of a six Weet-Bix breakfast. The weekly game rates highly on the scale of activities in which the young participate, outranking by far the boredom of school, skateboarding, bike riding, and even the Friday night trip to McDonalds.
These usually passive children adopt a new identity and see themselves as highly trained athletes whose intention is to push, fend, and fling to the ground the members of the opposing team, often when neither the attacker nor the prey are in possession of the ball. Being a team member is important, but being a team member who scores elevates the young person to levels of adoration by team mates, parents and coaches to a degree only seen in the more sacred rituals of orthodox churches when saintly relics are paraded.
On the morning of the match, the household revolves around the player. Normal activity ceases and communication is limited to a series of clipped sentences interspersed by grunts. The players are transported to the ground by parents or team member’s parents, all of whom are removed from the comfort of their beds on cold wet winter days when the sun has become a distant memory.
The morning activity results in shortened tempers and complaints from older siblings, all of which go unchallenged. The Hero of the Day remains calm but apprehensive with heightened senses, resplendent in the team colors and ready for the glory that will surely come with the first try.
Cats and dogs are fed, dishes are left in the sinks, fathers remain unshaven, babies are changed and pushchairs flung into car boots. Mothers give their precious children a final inspection before they are allowed into the car, ensuring that every vestige of last week’s mud has been removed from the boots and clothing.
The half time drink, which has replaced the Orange segments and has been prepared the night before by the Mother, is now passed to the player, who is seated in the front seat of the car. The more affluent team members use the canned “energy” provided by the modern fluids advertised on the television that presumably transforms flagging athletes into Olympic champions after two sips. All of these life giving fluids are of the utmost importance, and their containers are handled as if they are Granny’s legacy……………… the finest bone china tea-set.
On arrival at the ground, the players look around the field for the coach, totally divorcing themselves from their loved ones as the late comers run from the car park to join their colleagues. The team forms a tight circle with the coach in the centre. Only his voice can be heard as the players listen intently to his instructions while chewing small pieces of mouth guard, bitten off because of the tension within the gathering.
“Now don’t forget what we did at training. Keep your positions and hit them hard and low”, the coach says, stirring his charges and readying them for the forthcoming battle.
With the team talk over, the members disperse and give careful consideration to the size and possible abilities of the opposition. They note with satisfaction that “they’ve got two girls in their team” while giggling with embarrassment.
The supporters drift over to the far side of the ground to the selected pitch, muffled in warm clothing with some gumbooted and sporting multi colored Super Fourteen beanies. Brief greetings are exchanged, followed by complimentary remarks about the standard of play during last week’s match. Apparently not all were pleased with the team’s efforts. Some supporters appear to have been born to criticize and their loud comments drift over the ground.
“Hell! Look at the size of that big kid of their’s. You’re not telling me he’s nine years old!”
“We played them last year, and man, they play dirty. It’s the coaches you know”.
“I didn’t want Bevan to play this week, he’s had a terrible cold”.
“I told him to get stuck in and don’t take any rubbish from anyone”.
“If the blonde kid hadn’t dropped the ball, we’d have won that game”.
The comments prove that the spectators do take the game very seriously, with some even remembering their days as schoolboy players, back in the times when girls were only allowed to play Netball in knee length skirts.
The whistle blows and the teams move on to the field, side by side in single file. Parents get ready for the beginning of the game. Their body language changes as do their voices, which become strident in the still cold air.
”COME ON BLUE !!!!”
“Blue will kick off!” the referee, who also doubles as the opposition’s coach, informs the teams.
The Blue hooker places the ball and waits for the whistle. The shrill sound blasts around the ground. The hooker takes two paces towards the ball and flings a tremendous kick at the white plastic. His foot connects, but not in the desired manner, and the ball slices off at an angle towards one of the opposing female players who enjoys the exotic name of Diedre.
Kadaicha, Monique, Aliesha, and Kylie are all dedicated Rugby players, who often outperform their male counterparts, but still retain their feminity by wearing brightly colored hair ties while playing. Deidre, who at the moment is positioning herself to grab the ball, is from a large family and has had to contend with the antics of older brothers that had forced her to earn a position on the field during their family games.
Sheer aggression has been the hallmark of her success with the infliction of brotherly black eyes in the wake of her games, and her final reluctant acceptance, as an equal.
Diedre snatches the ball, tucks it firmly under her arm, and gathers speed down the touchline. The hooker, realizing his error and lack of direction, hurls himself at the girl, who sidesteps neatly and continues an uninterrupted run to score the first try.
Girl power has struck, causing complete bewilderment among the Blue team. Team tactics are forgotten as the game progresses and the entire group surrounds the ball, drifting around the ground like shoals of herring. Where one moves, the others follow, and it is remarkable that scoring is possible, but it does happen. Blue has scored two tries in the fist half in answer to the opposition’s five.
Breathless and muddy, the team welcomes the half time whistle, rushing to the sidelines for the drinks which are already in the Mother’s hands, unstoppered. The intake of much needed fluid is interrupted by the coach.
“Right, over here,” he orders.
The team closes around him, joined by some of the male parents.
“Now you’ve got to shut them down. Get the backline going, and forwards, don’t forget the wedge”.
One parent is ready to add a comment about the play patterns, but eye contact with the coach dissuades him. His sentence is strangled in his throat, and he returns to the sideline, with slumped shoulders.
The second half sees the hooker redeem himself by scoring two tries, and fending off Deidre’s attempts to down him by pushing her in the face. During further rucks, Aaron is injured and limps crying to the side line, where his Mother and Nana offer pain relief with cuddles and head pats.
It appears that crying is permitted at this level of the game. Not one player among the opposition made an uncaring remark as Aaron left the field. Even Diedre walked over to offer the injured player her sympathy. Such are the bonds between the young.
The coach bustles over to examine Aaron. Sobbing, Aaron points to his shin. “They kicked me”, he complains.
The coach produces a bottle of magical tap water, pouring a liberal quantity over the affected area.
“Now, how’s that?” he asks, almost daring Aaron to say that the treatment has not been successful...
“It’s better now,” Aaron says between sobs.
“Right then, go and score a try,” the coach says, smiling at the thought.
Aaron limps back onto the field.
At the final whistle, the teams give each other three rousing cheers and line up to shake hands. It is now time for the serious business of choosing “THE PLAYER OF THE DAY”.
The mud stained players are joined by their parents, as the coach fishes through his sports bag to find the necessary certificate.
“Now, you all played well,” he says, knowing that the five tries to ten loss is eating at his vitals, “and I can’t give you all a certificate, but I think that Aaron, was the best player today. He was hurt, and then came back to score a try. Well done, Aaron”.
The team applauds the choice and Aaron steps forward to receive his certificate and a voucher for a “free large fries” at McDonalds. Mother and Nana are beaming with pride, and no doubt Aaron will receive further material recognition for his bravery and skill later in the day.
The team breaks up and drifts towards the cars, with the parents saying their farewells to each other, knowing that half a tank of hot water will be added to the power bill when the players arrive home for their showers.
Another game is over, but the cycle will repeat itself for weeks to come, until the Sun returns, and Cricket replaces Rugby as the Summer game of choice.