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15-a-side solidarity

17 March 2012

10:24 PM

17 March 2012

10:24 PM

Wales have won the Grand Slam and I have grown to love rugby. Over the
past weeks I have been completely captivated by the Six Nations and I don’t quite know how this has happened, because I used to hate it. I look back to those bitterly cold afternoons up on
the hills above the Gordano Valley near Bristol where the weather always seemed to hover somewhere between horizontal sleet and hail.

I’d loved playing football for my primary school and for the local electricity board team, Portishead Sparks. It seemed unjust that I had been sent to a rugby school at 11. I was small,
skinny and increasingly short-sighted. Rugby provided the proof in brutal sporting form of the disastrous decision my parents had made to send me to a school 11 miles away from home, where I knew
no one and everyone was better at rugby than me. I made one appearance for the Under-13s B-team against Bristol Cathedral School which ended 0-0. And that was it for me and competitive rugby.

I’ve always been able to enjoy a good game on the telly. I can watch pretty much any sport if I put my mind to it. But I never loved rugby.

Perhaps 9/11 changed that — was it a coincidence that the men who tackled the hijackers of United 93 were rugby players? I wonder. Is there something about the physical courage demanded of
this game that can raise its players above the common herd? This is a game that demands of its individual players that they accept pain as part of their contribution to the team effort. Solidarity
built from personal sacrifice.

I now know that part of the reason I hated rugby is that I couldn’t face the fact that I lacked just that physical courage the game demands. I can now accept this about my younger self. And
it is one of the reasons I have such admiration for the young men who play it with such skill and commitment. Unlike football, I can watch rugby without the faintest whiff of pathetic
identification. At no point in my life have I ever dreamed of playing rugby for my country.

I had an inkling of  this sentiment when I watched England’s World Cup victory in 2003. Then I just felt it was patriotism and the fact that my newborn son was curled on my lap as an
unknowing witness to sporting history. Now I know it is something else. It is awe.

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