This month I was going to pen something about writing but, to be honest, I’m all inked-out when it comes to the subject. Currently I’m in my comfort zone, doing what I enjoy most, which is shameless, ears-pinned-back, plain old novel-scribbling. So what to blog about? How about something that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with writing? I know just the thing!
I attended high school in South Africa which meant that, like every other boy in my school, I was obliged to play the curious sport known as rugby (or, to give it its full name, Rugby Football). In general, if you wanted to avoid playing rugby at my school you had to have a very good excuse. And when I say very, I mean “very”. To give you an idea of the attitude towards the sport, my coach was once overheard saying to a boy: “The only excuse for missing training is death, and even then only in exceptional circumstances.” It was certainly a joke but the teacher said it without smiling, so I suspect that deep down he may have actually meant it.
As you would expect, not everybody enjoyed playing rugby. Some managed to find excuses good enough to allow them to do something else while the rest of us endured the unique physical demands of tackling, rucking, mauling, scrummaging, and generally getting knocked about for the sake of placing an odd-shaped ball behind your opponent’s try line. And in case you are not familiar with rugby, just think of American Football without the protective gear and you have some idea of the nature of the game. If you are not familiar with American Football, think of a game with an odd-shaped ball where there are just enough rules to stop it becoming a pitched battle.
Each of the five school years had a certain number of teams depending on how many boys were playing for each year. So the youngest boys were in the under-13s, those in next year were the under-14s, followed by the under-15s, and finally the Opens which covered the top two years of high school. Most years had enough boys for four full teams of fifteen. The Opens, consisting of the two oldest years, had enough for seven or eight teams with the top being the “First Fifteen”. In my graduation year we had enough boys in the final year to field seven teams, the lowest of which was called, simply, the Sevenths.
I started my rugby career playing in the “A” side of each year. Like a handful of boys who came out of the British schooling system, I was a year younger than the majority of boys in my class. So when I started with the under-13s I was really under-12. The reason I played in the “A” sides had nothing to do with temperament or talent, but everything to do with my size. I was bulky for my age and so was an ideal candidate for the front row in the scrum where weight is important. I played in the “A” sides right up to the under-15s. Then, when I became eligible for the Opens, my career plummeted with all the grace of an anvil after a weekend-long cheesecake binge*.
I don’t know why, but in the year when my old team mates and I joined the Opens, pressure was placed on me to play with the under-15s (my true age group). I knew and liked most of the guys there, but I felt out of place and uncomfortable. I agreed to play one game for them but I just didn’t fit in. I asked to stay with the Opens. They agreed, but placed me in the Third team. I hoped that I might make it to the First team in my final year, but that never happened. I was so determined to make the First team that I even joined an under-21 side at a nearby club in the two months before our final season started. I was a fifteen-year-old training with guys aged twenty. They put me in the front row where I was able to hold my own against guys much older than me. I worked on my speed and my fitness, determined to win a position in my school’s premier side. Perhaps it was because I had previously refused to play with the uder-15s, I don’t know, but I was given a place in the Third team yet again. I still hoped to prove myself but the coach of the Thirds and Fourths did not like me and so he put me straight into the Fourths. I was devastated and decided to concentrate on athletics instead. I requested permission to quit rugby. They told me I had to play, but could join the lowest Open side, namely the Sevenths.
So after a promising start to my rugby career, I found myself playing for the Sevenths in my final year of school rugby. This was basically the leftovers of the school’s Open rugby selection. Anyone who could not or would not play rugby ended up in the Sevenths. We were the dregs. We were the castaways. We were the embarrassing rejects. We were also, I believe, on the whole, the best team in the school.
There was something about being outside of the school’s rugby pressure cooker that bought out the best in us. We weren’t the biggest or the strongest, and we certainly weren’t the most skilled, but we enjoyed our rugby more than any other team. We won most of our matches against other schools and had the distinction of being the only side to win against the strongest school in the area the one weekend we played them. We were so confident that we challenged the Thirds to a friendly practice match. We won, and so challenged the Second team to a contest. They refused to play us, possibly because of the embarrassment that would surely follow being beaten by the team at the bottom of the school league. We took this as a victory by forfeit and nicknamed ourselves “The Savage Sevenths”. We were at the bottom of the school rugby rung, but we held our heads high and even attained something of a reputation with the other boys.
We may not have had huge crowds come to watch us play, and we may not have had the respect of the coaches, and the First team probably considered us unworthy to tie their boot laces, but we played some terrific rugby and I can honestly say that I enjoyed playing that year more than any other. Savage Sevenths, wherever you are–I salute you.
*Complaints about the dubious inclusion of anvils and cheesecakes into this post should be directed to the “NAF Cheesecake and Anvils Complaints Department” on the 40th floor. Please use the fire escape.