The last time I played rugby was when I was a (relatively) springy 34-year-old.
I’d moved from south Wales to take up a new job on the English north east coast 45 kilometres or so from the town where I was born. The good news: We found a house in a small, pleasant and ancient market town of some seven thousand people. The not so good: we knew very few people apart from a handful of new colleagues.
How, I asked myself, could I make friends? The local Clubs didn’t appeal and that left sports clubs; why not try rugby again? At school and for a while after, I had played rugby and without being too boastful, wasn’t half bad. At 34, and with my 35th birthday closer than I wanted to admit, I went to Guisborough Rugby club and asked about playing. I was welcomed and told to come along to training on the following Tuesday evening.
So at seven o’clock on a bitterly cold spring evening and along with 40-50 others, I went to the ground. The head coach sent me to train with the third team, a mixture of gangly youths, imagining they were on their way to greatness in Guisborough rugby, and tired, overweight older men who should have been at home in their slippers and cardies watching TV. I fitted into the latter group but without the weight.
We ran, we jogged we passed kicked we tackled – hard work this training business. Finally, we adjourned to the club – for a bath. Yes, a bath! Rugby club baths are, as far as I know, unknown in New Zealand where players take showers after training. But not in England in those days. The coach singled me out for a short encouraging chat later as we both sipped our pints. He thought it better I did not turn out for the thirds that Saturday afternoon but asked me come along for more training the following Tuesday. I did. And it was much the same as the previous week. Including the bath and the mandatory pint.
Coach told us the teams for Saturday were on the noticeboard. I went over to the board, looked at the 3rd team. At the top of the team list was the name of the full back. It was the position I had played for my school nearly twenty years before. In upper case letters it said, “ANDERSON.” I had made it. My glittering late life career was about to restart.
What I didn’t know was that we’d be playing Technical Day School Boys. But these schools had long since been abolished in favour of comprehensive schools. The schools might be history but not their rugby playing alumni.
Most were over-weight, smelled of embrocation and with their knees and elbows trussed in elasticated support bandages looked as they’d be a walkover. They kicked off – game on!
My part in it was minimal. I cleared the ball to touch. I collected the ball. I ran. I passed fairly well. I tackled. The tackles were tough; thump! They were big heavy men. I was out of breath. I made mistakes. I learned.
Can’t remember the score, but approaching half-time I found myself the only living thing on the planet between the goal line and a huge prop. I tackled him. Down he came ball and all, a hundred-twenty kilos of him. The ball bounced into touch. The heffalump leapt up and joined the line -out.
But I lay on the ground in agony – couldn’t move my left arm. I can’t remember exactly what happened next, except that I walked to the touch line. Someone moved my arm. The pain was excruciating.
I don’t know who made the decision to call a taxi to take me to Casualty at Hartlepools’ Hospital. I do remember it took ages to arrive – no cellphones in those days.
The Casualty waiting room of Hartlepools’ Hospital looked almost the same as it had done when I had visited decades before. In my youth the walls were adorned with posters advising the washing of hands after visiting the toilet or ensuring your children were vaccinated against diphtheria and advising mothers how to obtain free orange juice and cod liver oil for their children. That miserable afternoon as I awaited attention the posters warned of the hazards of unsafe sex, smoking, alcohol and driving at high speed.
Waiting that late afternoon, I realised what it was to be triaged. A late Saturday afternoon in Hartlepool, produced more damaged and urgent cases than me. My father rang the hospital to ask how I was. He also wanted details and asked why on earth was I playing rugby at my age. Being injured had served me right. However, he did agree to come the five or so kilometres to collect me.
The doctor re-examined me, then told me I had fractured my collar bone. Me! As if I had done it? I had fractured my collar bone? My collar bone had been broken by a huge prop built like a brick shithouse. That was a mere detail and after my shoulder was strapped, I was discharged but the shoulder remained tender for months.
Spring turned to summer and signalled the end of the rugby season. Perhaps I could try my hand at cricket? After all I was now a mature 35-year-old….