I was 14 when I first played provincial rugby. By this time I had been playing rugby for about a third of my life and had grown more in the game. I had grown to understand that the “run straight” rule could be bent or sometimes ignored completely once one understood it’s significance.
I was playing for the KZN Academy team. Our main game was at King’s Park stadium, the home of the Natal Sharks. This was big for me…to be running out onto the same ground that I had watched many of the players that I admired run out onto. It was a huge moment but unfortunately one that I remember very vaguely. I don’t recall whom we played against and whether we won or not, nor how I played that evening.
Earlier that week, I had gone to gym for the first time ever (taking advantage of a free session that was organised by a school friend) at the old Health and Racquet, Pietermaritzburg. My legs felt like jelly for days on end.
Be okay to look like a pansy while you grow strong. Otherwise you will cry on day two/ three.
One should not try to be a hero and squat the heavy weights on the onset.
There comes a time in life when one needs to be measure against the best and find out what he is made of. I was still 16 (turning 17 later that year) when I played at the u18 Craven Week for the first, and in many ways that tournament was a moment of being weighed and of being measured. It would grow me as a player and as a person.
Clipping the Eagle’s wings
Craven Week was a level of school-boy rugby that I had not seen or experienced before and it frankly scared me. I remember with crystal clarity, watching the opening game between the South West District Eagles and the Blue Bulls. That Blue Bulls team would yield at least two Springboks a few years later.
A teammate (while we were sitting on the stands watching) made a comment and jokingly said something to the effect of “okay gents, we were here, it’s been good…it’s time to go home”. I shared that sentiment more than I cared to admit- even though I knew that that was no option at all.
We hadn’t played a single game yet and the Bulls annihilated the Eagles.
We were due to play the Bulls later that week so you can imagine our trepidation. We would indeed face them later that week and we would win. The team that I had so been intimidated by, the players who had initially looked like they should be playing in the Currie Cup, had proven to be more fallible than what I first perceived. Of course I was one of 15 on the field, but the point is that I WAS on the victorious side that day.
That week stretched and grew me as a player and a person. All of us face trials and pressures in life. We sometimes encounter them and define them as problems and not regard them as opportunities to grow. I never understood at the time what the necessity and real value of academic tests and examinations (in school) were for, and why or how they were actually for my benefit.
I realise in retrospect that during difficult encounters (like the mental struggles at this Craven Week), that I was being tested and examined. Life, as it regularly does, was asking me questions:
- “are you courageous or fearful?”,
- ”are you going to choose to yield to your fears or overcome them?”,
- “do you believe in yourself or not?”,
- “are you going to step up and rise to the challenge or not?”,
- “are you really a good sportsman or an average one?”,
Like many of the exams that I took during my school days, the tests that I faced during my sporting journey up to this time, would yield the required minimum marks for passes but not many distinctions. There were lessons that I would still learn in later years which I wish I had learned sooner in my younger years.
One such lesson (relating to rugby) was that I needed to work harder to improve my game. I needed to be more intentional and spend much more time learning to better understood rugby. I needed to have a deeper knowledge of the game, the rules, including its strategies and tactics so that I could be more effective, more creative and a better player. Perhaps one day I could wear the green and gold jersey- even from school level.
I needed to learn how to do uncomfortable and unnatural things- like learning to kick with my left foot and pass with my left hand. These were awkward at the start and I was horrible at both feeling for many weeks like a clumsy toddler. But with much practice, patience and perseverance, I would improve. In fact, by the time I left school I could kick better with my (unnatural left foot) than with my (natural) right foot.
Once I became more ambidextrously (equally good with the both hands and feet), I had twice as many options in most situations on the field.
These kinds of lessons are applicable to life too. I would apply many of the principles in the work environment and they have served me well once learnt. In 2000 I played a second time at the u18 Craven Week. I was more confident this time round. I was a better player and it was one that I enjoyed a whole lot more than the first. It would be during this tournament that I would be scouted by certain men clad in blue. Men from the north, from deep in the (former) Transvaal.
They would lure me with promises of fully paid tertiary tuition fees, all of which would eventually land me in the only place in the country that I was determined never to study in. Gauteng! The first 18 months in Gauteng were a gradual declining levels from “super hellish to tolerable”.
In times of difficulty, in particular the changes due to Covid, and the growing pressures of life, we need to learn to be kicking with our left feet too. We need to to be practicing doing things that are first awkward and natural. We need to be loving one another, being more compassionate and becoming fluent with emotional language and at peace with other cultures.
We have opportunity to rise up and grow beyond ourselves- to become better people, better husbands, better parents, better citizens etc.
But we need to “practice”. For example, practice speaking words of affirmation to our wives, talking about how we feel and admitting when we need sometimes. I like using the word “practice” because it takes away the pressure of perfection. If it is something that we are practicing, then we can keep on improving without punishing ourselves for not being good at it yet.
Let us all practice new things.
Let us rise to the tests that life is putting us through and push ourselves to attain to higher standards of manhood, masculinity and humanity. Let us grow together and practice becoming ambidextrous in more facets of our lives.