Tuesday, 4 May 2010
If somebody said to you:
“I want you to go onto the pitch and spend the next eighty minutes being pounded, mauled, savaged, mangled, battered and generally knocked about. Now GET GOING!!”
I can guess that you would probably say “No way, you psychotic arse!”
You would be justified in saying this or something stronger.
Sadly, for me, I had no choice; I had to obey.
At the age of 11, I started on my first day at Walsall’s only grammar school, a school with an immense reputation for excellence and scholarly achievement. My parents were proud as I had managed to earn a place using my intelligence, i.e. I passed my 11+ exam with flying colours. I had reached a pinnacle of achievement and I joined the ranks of the elite – or so I thought.
I came from a working class background, where kids swore (in some cases it was their first word). My mum didn’t work and my dad worked in a factory. We struggled on and we coped. I had somehow emerged from the working class shadows and was on my up. From an early age, I yearned to be a footballer; my dad took me to my first match at Fellows Park, Walsall to watch what would become my beloved Walsall FC. I was hooked. At junior school, I was elated to make the football team briefly, even though I was so short sighted that I could barely see the ball. I loved football.
Imagine my horror when I discovered, after all my hard work in the exam, that my new grammar school played rugby and only rugby. There was no football. Any round balls that made it into the school were mutated into eggs with maximum prejudice.
I had no choice! Rugby was going to be my sport whether I like it or not. And I didn’t like it one little bit. I was gutted. I wanted to leave and go to the local comprehensive school. My dad told me in no uncertain terms what I should do. I stayed at the grammar school.
I enjoyed watching rugby, particularly the Five Nations (as it was then) and I cheered England until I was hoarse. But play rugby? No chance!!
Well let me tell you. People say that football is a sport for gentlemen played by thugs and rugby is a sport for thugs played by gentlemen.
I say that rugby is a sport for thugs played by thugs.
I still remember that fateful day when I stood in the September rain in the autumn of 1974 with the other poor wretches staring at the mud bath that was to become my worst nightmare over the years.
The PE teacher, himself an amateur rugby player for Walsall, was a giant compared to me. He was also a total sadist. And he didn’t like me. Why? Because I was a cheeky little git.
In that first lesson, he tried to teach us the basics of the brutal game. His words went in one ear and out of the other. Over the weeks, he taught us how to tackle, how to run, the basic rules and tactics. It wasn’t long before he uttered the words that chilled me to the very marrow of my bones:
“Right – we’re going to play a game.”
I was small for my age, a “late developer” my embarrassed parents told friends. Not only was I short – I was as thin as an anorexic rake. Whenever I walked past railings, people said “Now you see him; now you don’t”.
You can imagine that rugby was never going to be the best sport for me.
I looked around at my school friends and saw the first signs of change. The bigger lads began to mutate into Mr Hyde. Knowing grins spread across their sadistic faces. One or two pairs of eyes settled on me.
Before I go on, I have to tell you something. I was a cheeky little bugger at school. I would not allow teachers to get the better of me and I certainly didn’t allow the big lads to bully me; I always tried my best to get the better of them by humiliating them by exposing them as buffoons, which was quite easy really. I certainly couldn’t take them on in a fight – that way would have been madness. At times I was a real arsehole at school.
As I’ve said, my sadistic PE teacher didn’t like me either (mainly because on more than one occasion I accused him of being a meathead). When he picked the teams, he had already decided which players that were going to be in the elite “First XV” – and I wasn’t one of them.
Sadly, that meant that I ended up in the “Second XV” or “Third XV”, i.e. the “also rans”. Worse, the sadistic PE teacher wanted them to bond as a team – so he pitched them against the rest.
I did have one thing going for me; I was fast – in fact I was one of the fastest kids in the year, despite my height.
I was also fearless (for “fearless” read “stupid”). I found myself facing the “First XV” when the whistle was blown and within seconds I would invite pain, goading the biggest kids on the other team with taunts like:
“OY! FATSO!!! I’m surprised you’re not sinking in the mud with that fat arse of yours! Hippos like mud and you look so at home in it, you fat arsehole!”
What, in the name of all that was holy, was I thinking? The “fat” kids weren’t fat at all. They were bruisers and they were fast. They had muscles where I didn’t think muscles existed. Even their muscles had muscles.
As you can see, I was a supercilious little shit with a big mouth and, because of my arrogance I thought I could outrun them all.
I was wrong.
In the early days I used to catch the ball and get rid of it immediately but then I became cocky and kept it, my insane ego telling me that I could outrun these fat lumps, score a try and get the glory. That was my biggest mistake.
Picture the scene.
Straight from the scrum, one of my team mates has the ball and throws it along the line as we advance. The bulky bruisers advance. The ball is passed to me.
Through blurred eyes, I can vaguely see the post ahead. Looming in front of me are three or four bruisers, most of whom I have verbally abused in the past week or called “FATSO” in a moment of madness at the start of the game. But I am fearless; I am fast and I can outrun these lumbering hippopotami with ease.
One minute I am running; the next I am not. One of the hippos has caught me and lifted me up in the air. I am travelling backwards at a rate of knots and at the same time, my head is hurtling towards a deep puddle of thick, viscous mud. I crash to the ground with the full weight of a hippo on top of me. I am still clutching the ball, somehow. Several things cross my mind:
(1) That bloody hurt.
(2) That really bloody hurt.
(3) That really, really, really, really bloody hurt.
(4) Bloody hell, I can’t breathe.
(5) I must get rid of the ball before another hippo arrives.
(6) My face is a little too close to that puddle of mud.
(7) I wish I hadn’t called the hippo “Fatso!”
(8) Oh shit! Here comes another hippo.
Before I know it, the other hippo has leapt on top of me, and the first hippo, incensed at my suggestion that he may be a little overweight, has grabbed my long hair and rammed my face into the puddle of mud.
I hear the words:
“That’ll teach you to call me Fatso, you little shit!”
Let me tell you one thing. Breathing and swallowing mud is not a pleasant experience, particularly when you in agony and being sat on by at least two huge bruisers. When the hippos finally get off, I am lying in the mud, soaking wet, filthy and my face is covered in mud. I spit out a pint of liquid mud and pull half a pound of turf out of my teeth.
I hear the PE teacher shouting at me:
“Get up and get back into position!”
I stand up and look around. Before I know it, somebody has passed the ball to me again.
I am too slow. One of the hippos flattens me again and once more I drink a cocktail of mud, turf and filthy water.
And there are still 70 minutes to play.
Every game of rugby I took part in was the same. I walked off the pitch battered, bruised and broken. The bullies couldn’t lay into me normally but did so “legally” on the rugby pitch, incensed by my piss-taking.
On one occasion I was actually tackled so hard that I was almost knocked unconscious. Thankfully, the sadistic PE teacher took pity on me and sent me staggering back to the changing room.
For five years I endured this ritual torture.
I hated every last second of it.
When I reached the sixth form, I had the opportunity to drop the sport (if you want to call it a sport). Mind you, I had filled out a little bit then and also grown. I was actually taller than some of the hippos so I reckon, had I continued playing rugby, I might have been able to exact my revenge.
I chose a more sedate pursuit – kickboxing!
Some people look back at past traumatic experiences and say “it wasn’t so bad.”
To those people I say this:
Play rugby for five years. Find a sadistic PE teacher who hates you, add a pinch of arrogance and foolhardy piss-taking of the biggest lads in the year, be clever and tell the PE teacher that “rugby is a game for brainless meatheads”, stand in front of your nemeses on a rugby pitch and call them all “fat useless oafs” and, after you have quite literally been dragged through the mud and beaten for 80 minutes, tell me that “it wasn’t so bad”.
Mind you, I guess I deserved everything I got.
As much as I hated playing the game, I still like to watch rugby, particularly the Six Nations. I love to cheer England especially when they kick a bit of Aussie arse. I will be watching and cheering during the next World Cup, that’s for sure.
But to those hippos that so ruthlessly made me drink mud as a child, I have just this to say:
“OY FATTY!!! I am still faster than you, you mal-coordinated lump of blubber. The only reason they put you in the scrum is because they haven’t built the crane yet that could lift your fat arse off the pitch!”
I have changed – honest.