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FUNNY SHAPED BALLS

22-09-2007

rugby

The current World Cup might give you the impression that Rugby is a game played by finely honed athletes capable of throwing a ball around with great speed and skill (at least when England aren't playing). That's not how Laurence Inman remembers it.

After giving up my career in football (see article on 10th May) and moving to another city, I joined a Rugby Union club.

Interesting phrase that: 'Rugby Union club.'

It conjures up images of men, possibly from a rather conventional middle-class background, fairly adequately educated, enjoying the benefits of life offered by being a member of some exclusive professional circle, in the law perhaps, or medicine.

They 'train' together once a week at most. They play a strenuous but enjoyable eighty minutes at the weekend against teams with names like Lymesmold Old Corinthians and guffaw over the amusing incidents in the game in the clubhouse afterwards, clutching a pint of Ruddles and sucking on a stout briar.

The truth, in every respect, was totally different.

If you 'played' for West Leicester Fifths, the actual game of Rugby was the last thing on your mind, even on the field of play. It was much more about meeting up with the chaps in the clubhouse for a night of industrial-scale drinking.

The clubhouse was not some cosy wooden structure just next to the field; it was a mysterious place down an alley off Charles Street in the centre of Leicester. (I never went there both sober and in the daylight at the same time, so it's a bit hard to remember.)

You clambered up a rickety metal staircase, tapped on a door, a little slide-hatch flew open, you said 'Ernie sent me' and you were in.

Things were always a bit confused from then on. There were a lot of big loud men in there who seemed to be literally throwing beer down their throats. I'm sure they would have injected the stuff if they could have held the needle still.

Later in the evening they started to play what looked like jovial party-games. One chap, I remember, was comatose on the floor, so some of his mates squashed him into a tall cupboard and turned it to the wall. Everyone went home and he was forgotten. He must have woken up and thought he'd been buried alive. But he was okay; he just kicked his way out of the back. The splintered remains were found the next day. The man himself was found a month later.

This scenario was something of a tradition, apparently, and took place at least twice a year.

Ages later I learnt that the club nearly folded after a night of 'horse-play' on a cross-channel ferry. The lads had been on a short tour of France and Belgium. How were they to know that if you throw something overboard – a life-belt, an item of deck furniture, another passenger – then dozens of boats and planes from all over the south coast are scrambled and head in your direction, at astronomical cost (and that's without including the fines).

Anyway, if dazed disorientation was the theme of most nights down the 'clubhouse' it was even worse on the pitch.

The first mistake I made was hinting to my fellow-members of the Fifths that I was a sprinter of near-Olympic standard and that the only place for a man of my calibre was out on the wing. The rest of the team (thirteen kids and a fifty-four-year-old) all readily agreed.

Even in the best amateur teams the wingers will do plenty of running, but won't have their handling and passing skills unduly tested. I was expecting this. What I wasn't expecting was never receiving the ball at all.

In my first six games, the furthest out the ball ever got was to our scrum-half, an unsavoury squeaky-voiced little oik called Jeremy, who, whenever he was squashed by the opposing flanker, (which was at every scrum,) concluded it was my fault because I obviously wasn't ready for his drilling pass, each of which would have resulted in a certain try.

For game seven, I moved in to the centre, whereupon Jeremy recovered his passing skills and started to send great ballooning lobs out to his mate Clive, now on the wing. If Clive ever managed to catch the ball he began to shudder with uncontrollable fear and was immediately crushed by one of the opposition, apparently a different one each time.

They appeared to take it in turns to crush Clive. Even their full-back, even their other wing, had time to amble over and do it.

So, a combination of boredom and alcohol-poisoning put paid to any serious involvement on my part in team sports. From then on it was just the occasional game of cricket at the various schools I've taught in around the country.

I discovered the joys of another physical pursuit, one which not only keeps me fit but has also provided me with the complete answer to any problem which Life can throw at me. More on this next week.

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