(a.k.a An ode to my rugby playing career…)
Late 1970’s South Africa – a beautiful country, but with questionable politics. We’d moved there when I was only five years old due to my dad’s job. A country where Rugby Union was almost a religion, and young (white) boys indoctrinated very early on. With a dad keen on rugby too, it was no wonder that I soon found myself with a rugby ball in my hands.
My semi-eidetic memory recalls my first training session well; Stood in a line with the other boys, the teacher wandered down giving us positions. When he got to me, the exchange went like this:
“Flanker. Take the No.7 shirt out of the bag Foley”.
“Ok sir. What do I need to do?”
“Be everywhere, be there first, and if it moves, tackle it.”
15-a-side full contact rugby became a norm a long time before it did for my own son. Those that know (the rather overweight) me now may laugh at the idea of me being an openside flanker, but (1) convention in SA is that openside wears the No6 not the No7 (so on this occasion, the teacher agreed with you!), and (2) I was young and quick ONCE!
Back in the UK for Christmas 1981, rugby took a brief hiatus whilst I finished the last 2 terms of primary school (at which it wasn’t taught in the UK at the time). The oval ball I often brought to school for chucking around in the playground at breaktime was eyed with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion by the other kids at school, as was my suntan and dodgy accent. An adolescent boy’s voice that’s breaking and the SA accent are NOT a good combination…(!)
I started secondary school TWICE, something rugby-related being noticed each time:
At my local comprehensive in September 1982, Rugby was (briefly) on the timetable for PE lessons. The fact that I turned up for the first one of those in my old SA school rugby jumper, along with the lingering hints of tan and accent (as well as my height – I was big compared to a lot of my classmates), soon had the games master insisting I came to after school practice for the school team. Sadly Rugby was only one term a year at that school, but it was good fun.
In September 1984, rugby was truly back with a bang for me however…
I moved schools to Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School Bristol in 1984, having taken the 13+ entrance exam. A public school, where rugby was at the forefront of sporting endeavour and football a mere afterthought. The first thing one of my new classmates said to me, as I and a few others walked in and took our places alongside the boys who’d been there for two years already, was “Psst…mate…do you play rugby?” I was always noticeably taller and broad-shouldered than others as a younger teenager!
Time have changed however, and QEH encompasses the round-ball game very well these days, but I digress…
By the end of my time at QEH, in 1989, I had played many a game alongside several very talented individuals, some of whom I feel particularly privileged to have played with. I’d settled on No.8 or lock as a position with occasional appearances as flanker, and a couple of random ones in the backs. Unlike my son, and a lot of my peers and coaches at my present rugby club, I never played club rugby as a lad, despite a decent club being just around the corner during my teenage years. Rugby at QEH was enough for me, especially when I got to 1st / 2nd XV level with three training sessions a week and games on a Saturday. Once I left QEH however, I was 29 before picking up a ball “in anger” again (my brief dabble with the armed forces was in a cricket-obsessed regiment, a sport I admire but possess very little talent for!) A shame, as I had some rugby talent and enjoyed the game immensely. My Rugby anecdotes were nearly all schooldays rather than club related as a result, and of course I remained a huge fan of the game.
In late 1999, fresh into fatherhood and home ownership for the first time, I was living in Rochester, Kent. I took my baby daughter for a walk in the pram one Saturday afternoon. As my wife took advantage of my doing so to have a gentle doze on the sofa, I steered Charlotte’s pram towards the nearby fields and rugby club, thinking to watch a game. I caught the last 10 minutes of a 4th XV game at Medway RFC, and one of the chaps coming off the pitch stopped to say hello and fuss over the baby in the pram. 10 minutes later, I was being pointed in the direction of the club chairman in the bar and had had my number taken. The following week, I was in action at the age of 29, having not played since 18!
A few happy seasons followed playing for 2nd, 3rd and 4th XVs, including one season as Captain of the 3rd XV, all over the rugby clubs of Kent and SE London. Good times, good friends…although my wife wasn’t so sure about the washing 15+ shirts every Saturday when I was captain! I stopped at the end of the 2002/ 03 season, as my wife was heavily pregnant and I’d moved house across town and wasn’t as local to the club any more. I only played one game the following season, but was in the middle of a comeback pre-season in advance of the 2004/05 season when we moved back to Bristol.
Briefly living in my mum’s spare room whilst our house in Kent was on the market, I managed a couple of games for my school old boys club, but an injury put paid to my efforts that season bar a fleeting appearance for Medway, when they came to Bristol on tour in Easter 2005. I turned up at Yatton RFC early in the 2005/06 season, but my wife’s Saturday job and my lack of availability as a result as I looked after our young kids soon had the then 3rd XV Skipper Andy Williams tire of ringing me, and it all just petered out.
When my son got to infant school, he expressed an interest in rugby as some of his friends came along to the tag rugby U6/U7 age group at Yatton RFC. After being a touchline dad when they were U6s, I was itching to get involved and volunteered to be a coach. I coached my lad’s team for 7 years until stepping away last season, including a two year stint as junior / youth chairman. It was during the 2013/14 season however, when my son was U10, that having lost a lot of weight and made an effort to improve my fitness, the lure of pulling my boots on again became too strong.
I blame Doug Shields. I bumped into Doug when we were both walking our dogs one day, and he said he was going to the rugby club to watch the 3rd XV game. I joined him, and decided there was nothing I’d seen that scared me. A fellow coach, Alun Harris, had also recently started playing, and he gave me the 3rd XV skippers number. One phone call to Mr Ashley Skuse later…and the following week I was partnering him in the 3rd XV second row, where I stayed all season. The following season I took a month or two break at the start due to my job, but carried on as before shortly thereafter. Two seasons of great rugby, making friends, and of people at the club knowing who I am on a Saturday, rather than just on a Sunday when the kids train and play!
In the two seasons after that however, I played only one or two games each season, as age, injury and family commitments started catching up with me, alongside all the weight I’d lost coming back with interest! Now in the third season since I played regularly, desperate to remain involved but unable to contribute on the playing field for health and other reasons, I manage the 2nd XV (which basically amounts to being glorified kitman / waterboy, or having 15 kids to pick up after on a Saturday afternoon). Even doing that, the thought “…well, if they’re really desperate…” lurked at the back of my mind. It’s time to give up gracefully however. I can’t play anymore, however much I want to, so will be content to manage. Assisting my former teammates from the sidelines and watching my son and daughter’s playing careers blossom is where its at now. As Mel Gibson says in Lethal Weapon, “I’m too old for this sh*t…”
The tracksuit still gets worn, but the boots are hung up. It’s time to let go.