Thursday, August 16, 2012

Rugby: A great excuse to wear really short shorts

For the past few years since I stopped playing high school sports yet continued to relive the glory days by telling people how much better Marist athletics were than their high school’s, I had an interest in playing rugby. I would like to have played at BU my freshman year but I felt unsure of the stability of my knee after having reconstructive surgery. After spending a semester in New Zealand, I was pretty hooked on rugby but still not brave enough to play when I came back to Boston. I never gave much thought to playing rugby after I graduated, not until my Peace Corps roommate Rob suggested we join the local club in Rehoboth.

The allure of rugby for me lies in the seemingly no holds-barred, score-however-you-can attitude. Little did I know, there are more esoteric, indecipherable rules than you can shake a stick at. We’ll get to that later.

So when I started coming around to practice I had pretty much no idea what to expect. Was the experience going to be indicative of “ZOMG THIS IS HIGHEST LEVEL OF NAMIBIAN RUGBY”, or more likely the former, “this is Namibia/Africa and the level of efficiency/organization will be shoddy at best”? As with most things, it was a balance of the two poles, with the latter sticking its head out at awkward times e.g. “we got a sponsorship of almost N$ 6,000 from MTC (cellphone company)!....sooo turn in a pair of black shorts so we can sew an MTC patch on there” or “okay we’ve got a big game this weekend against United, they’re one of the best clubs from Windhoek….first team, report on Saturday to draw the chalk lines on the field” or “we had an awesome TV in the clubhouse…but it got stolen”. Amateur sports at its finest. And I loved it.

We practiced two times a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays (sometimes Wednesdays as well on game weeks). The Tuesday practice was nearly always conditioning and at the Thursday practice, management would announce the teams (we always had a first and second team, on two occasions we had a third team – where I made my grand entrance into rugby). So, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that the team isn’t announced till Thursday, meaning that the attendance of practice from Tuesday to Thursday pretty much triples. Fortunately for us hard-working American boys, the coaches took notice of attendance and we were pretty much always included on a team.

Now the part of this rambling word vomit you’ve all been waiting for: Sam Kelly hijinks from the rugby field. It must be said that while I had some experience watching rugby, I still could name only two, maybe three positions (of the fifteen on the field). So after sticking around for two weeks of practices, the coaches realized we Englishmen (they didn’t really understand that we were American, just that we spoke English, hence “Engelsman” in Afrikaans) weren’t going away so they needed to find positions for us. Since football derives from rugby, the positions are set up fairly similarly to American football. Basically, the team is divided into “forwards” and “backs”. Forwards are essentially your linemen and you could possibly include linebackers in there as well. Backs are everything else. One thing I realized when my Marist football career came to an end (with a lot of time on the bench) was that I didn’t exactly buttonhole into any particular position. Although I spent my time as a back-up guard, I was probably too small to be an effective offensive lineman but was always too slow to be any sort of back. Perhaps I would’ve been better suited at a defensive position but by the time I had acquired some mild form of speed junior year, I was already entrenched as the dregs of offensive lineman. Anyway, the position they found for me at Rehoboth Rugby Club was “flanker”: one of the eight forward players but also leaning toward a forward/back hybrid. It is at once a position where a player can excel and be a team leader (see: Richie McCaw for the NZ All Blacks) or can pretty much do your job as adequately as possible and not fuck things up too much (see: me).

As this is starting to get oppressively long, I’ll wrap it up with probably the most remarkable episode from the beginning of what I’m sure will be an illustrious international rugby career. After surviving playing on the third team against the local rival Reho Falcons’ third team, I was selected to the second team (!) against University of Namibia. Before that moment, I looked at making the second team as an unattainable feat. So when they called my name I was frightened, nervous and excited. Mostly frightened. This particular game was being played at UNAM so that meant traveling. Recall the hazy line between Premier League Rugby and complete bush league? Transportation to the game was promised to be a luxurious mini-bus. Reality: transportation to the game was a closed bakkie with 8 other rugby dudes. We arrive just as our women’s rugby affiliate team, none other than the Reho PANDAS, is finishing up. We change from our pretty badass mandatory game-day uniform of blue jeans and white button downs into the hand-me-down jerseys. I don the flanker signature number 7. We walk out from the dungeon-like locker rooms that are beneath the stadium seating as the Reho Pandas offer a continuous ear-ringing, adrenaline-pumping chant/cheer. Per rugby tradition, we line up next to the opposing team before taking the field. Combining both teams, I’m in the bottom three smallest players. We hustle out and teammates guide me where to stand on the kick-off. We’re receiving. It’s a beautiful sunny day, few clouds in the sky and an impressive view of Windhoek as the UNAM campus and athletic field sit on a hill above the city. There’s the signature sound of toe meeting leather and the kick is sent in our direction and into the blue sky. I’m calling “MINE” and catching the ball, taking several steps before being tackled and going down, grasping the ball for dear life. Still on the ground, in this dude’s embrace, a few quick seconds pass and there is a whistle. “Holding!” the ref says and gestures. Damn right! That guy was all over me, holding and shit. He again gestures, this time for our team to back up and someone places the ball on a tee. THEY HAVE A PENALTY KICK. LITERALLY SECONDS HAVE ELAPSED AND I HAVE PERSONALLY ALREADY GIVEN POINTS TO THE OTHER TEAM. Their scrum-half aligns himself for the kick. Kick is up…WIDE RIGHT, NO GOOD! Our captain jogs past me a “it’s okay Sam, just don’t hold the ball so long next time.”