by John Ewing - I enjoy reading stories about rugby experiences around the world, this week I was contacted by John Ewing, whose rugby career started in New Zealand. With the World Cup just around the corner, I thought his club rugby experience would paint a picture of club rugby in New Zealand...the cartoons are drawn by John, a talented artist...I will let you make up your mind about his rugby talent..
If you have a story to share, send it over, I am happy to share it with our rugby community.
My first night at training for the local rugby team in Auckland was more memorable — and I doubt that's the correct word for it; 'horrendous' comes to mind as more appropriate — than I could ever have anticipated, or desired. I never dreamed so much physical anguish could be heaped upon one solitary human in such a short time. In just over an hour I was subjected to physical torment the Marquis de Sade would have sold everything he owned just for a chance to participate in. When I arrived home for a late supper and my wife approached for the usual hug of greeting, I fended her off with what little strength I had left. ‘Please don’t touch me, sweetheart,’ I begged, ‘I couldn’t take it.’ I had been, as they say back home, ‘rode hard and put away wet.’
I was not a novice at so-called ‘contact’ sports, noting with applause Coach Woody Hayes' opinion that ‘dancing is a contact sport. Football is a collision sport,’ consequently soon after immigrating to New Zealand I began an investigation of their national sport, Rugby.’
I cannot say with confidence that I would have been selected as an All Black, but the views of my fellow athletes in America were that I had an excellent chance; I am not confident that they really knew anything about the All Blacks. When I mentioned the idea to acquaintances in New Zealand I got curious stares. 'There may be a residency requirement,' I thought. 'Maybe you have to be born here.'
Later, when I had played the game, and became familiar with more of the subtleties, I wrote to those friends (I had since learned that these friends all had fried brains and knew nothing about Rugby) and resoundingly disabused them of their notions. I am eternally grateful that Colin Meads never learned of my friends' views.
As part of my early research I joined the ranks of bystanders at a game my son was playing in for his school. I eased casually up alongside another parent with the view of extracting whatever snippets of information I could. A couple of ‘ahems’ and we were gassing away like cobbers of long standing.
'What are the chances,' I chuckled casually, 'of, say for instance, an older person playing this game?' suggesting in my tone that only a demented older person would even consider it.
'Good as gold, mate,' he said. ‘The footie clubs have teams for all sizes and ages.’
'Great idea,' I said.
‘Too right,’ he said. ‘On the Suburbs Fourth Grade team they have a chap . . .’ here he paused and looked around conspiratorially, ‘ . . .who is thirty-seven years old!’
‘You don’t mean it!’ I exclaimed, my thirty-nine year old heart a-flutter.
‘Too right I do,’ he said, ‘and the old bugger gets around the paddock for the full eighty, he does.’
I expressed amazement and enquired further, ‘You said the Fourth Grade. Were there any other, er, conditions?’
‘Open age, under eleven stone seven,' he said. 'You can be a hundred years old, but you must weigh under eleven seven.’
‘Interesting, interesting,’ I murmured.
The following week, after a few inquiries to learn what a stone was (fourteen pounds), and what to wear, I turned up at the training shed of the Suburbs Rugby Football Club.
All my life I had played every moment of Two Hands Below the Belt gridiron I could get invited to, and was far more fit than the average man my age. I wanted to make a good impression on these Kiwi blokes, so I arrived early, ran a few laps around the grounds and did a few stretches, just to get loose. I was puffing easily when the regulars began drifting in.
The guys were generally friendly, although curious about me, offering a nod and 'g'day' as they changed into their practice gear. I hesitate to say this, but their language was incomprehensible. The conversation was a recounts of events, I believe, from their previous game. It obviously contained mostly rugby game-jargon, first-person anecdotes and was rapid-fire, interspersed with gales of laughter with everyone talking at once. I didn’t understand a word. But I joined heartily in the laughter; anything that could provoke this much humor days afterward must have been simply hilarious at the time. I anticipated a lot of fun as my rugby career progressed.
We filed out into the sawdust arena and began jogging around the outer dimensions of the training shed. This went on far longer than I expected, and I was already puffed from my warm-up procedure. ‘Hm,’ I thought, ‘these guys are serious.’ Around and around we went until I was at a point nearing exhaustion. ‘How many more?’ I asked myself with some foreboding.
Suddenly the coach shouted, ‘Sprint!’ and the sedate jogging became riotous as everyone blasted off, leaving a fine spattering of sawdust in the air. Ten seconds later it was, ‘Jog!’ and we jogged. Three seconds and it was ‘Sprint!’ again, and my foreboding was justified.
This ‘sprint/jog’ thing lasted well past what my legs were capable of, and to this day I do not know how I kept within reach of the rest of the team.
‘Right, down at the end!’ came the coach’s call and we all trotted down to the end of the shed. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘a breather.’ I leaned gratefully against the wall, breathless but desperate not to show it.
‘Right!’ shouted the coach again. ‘Up on his back! Away you go!’ and half the players leaped upon the backs of the other half and were spurred in a sprint back to the other end of the shed. I cannot say definitively that it was a put-up job, but the only guy with a weight problem on the team, Wayne, jumped up on me. I got to know Wayne well in the ensuing years and although a used car salesman he was definitely not anti-American, so I accept that it was simply a cynical stroke of fate that he was my cargo for this portion of the training routine. My legs were water as I wobbled the last few steps and crashed us both into the wall. Hoping, praying, for a breather, I thought, ‘Surely now — ’, but Wayne bent over and I had to scramble aboard him, and he carried me over the same route. I wish I could say I enjoyed this paltry and futile opportunity for revenge, but I was too tired. Trying to hang on to Wayne, a complete stranger moments ago, and being bounced unconscionably was more than I could manage. Yet I managed it. How? I don't know, but I had to, for we did it another four times, then lined up in groups against the wall.
Fortunately, deliciously, we had a few seconds as the coach placed rugby balls three meters in front of each group of players. At his command we had to sprint forward, bend down at full speed, scoop up the ball, get to the other end of the shed and place the ball. We then bounced off the wall and lined up to do it again in the opposite direction. I cannot say how many times we did this, for my mind had by now detached itself; I had become a zombie, an automaton, no longer a normally functioning being. I understand it is a defensive mechanism that when something is happening to you that is horrible beyond the mind’s capacity to cope, it switches off; you go into a transcendental state of some sort, like a trance.
There came a time some weeks later when the Coach said, 'You're getting fit, Yank.' And I began to get playing time in matches where the result wouldn't affect the standings; I still had too many gridiron instincts to un-learn. For instance, a rugby player can kick with accuracy off either foot running at full speed; when I tried it I missed the ball and skidded five meters on my butt. You should have heard my teammates.
I was placed on the open side of the scrum, because I had fair speed, but I didn't really know what to do; I should have been trying to cripple or otherwise distract the halfback, or the first-five, but instead I would get into an arm tussle with the opposing flanker, giving their halfie a free run. And it was impossible for me to resist the urge to throw a gridiron block on an opponent pursuing our halfback — shepherding, I believe it is called —, something the officials took immediate exception to.
But it was all great fun. Well, mostly fun; playing against Ponsonby one Saturday afternoon, a team made up of bonny Islanders, their openside took exception to the fact that our scrum had a good push on and theirs was back-pedalling. He detached himself from the scrum and launched a few kicks in our direction. We got a penalty and three more points, and in the ensuing melee I collected his boot to my ear.
In the emergency waiting room the surgeon swabbed out my ear and peered inside. 'Mm,' he said, 'it's quite tattered.'
Next week at training the guys asked, 'How many stitches?'
'Thirteen,' I replied.
'Haw haw, thirteen stitches! That makes you a Kiwi!'
I lodged a half-hearted protest at the end of season prize-giving dinner, claiming that I should have got the award for 'Most Improved Player,' for after the very first time I was caught at the bottom of a ruck I emerged as the 'Most Improved Player' on the team, and probably all of New Zealand.
I played for the Suburbs for three more years and my non-selection for the All Blacks is quite possibly linked to my reluctance to ever get within thirty meters of a ruck.
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