My Rugby Journey Part 4, The Blue Jersey

It is a spectacular feeling when after many years of investment into the sport that you love, it finally yields fruit other than the emotional high that one gets from a surge of adrenaline and the exhilaration of winning a tough game.

When one gets to club rugby level (as I did when playing for the University of Pretoria) and in particular, to post-school provincial level, it is quite satisfying to know that a 60-80 minute bruising experience will be rewarded by hopefully not only a win, but certainly an envelope filled with a few hundred rands of cash. This was a new and enjoyable experience for me- getting to a level when doing what I loved started paying me instead of costing me.

Playing for the Blue Bulls u19 and u21 teams was an unbelievable experience- running around on all of the hallowed grounds that I had so longed to do. These same grounds that had looked so large on television, where wizardry of the highest order was performed under bright lights and before raging crowd-filled stands that seemed to reach to the sky.

Loftus Versfeld! Newlands! Kings Park…and of course, the ground that set the Rainbow Nation ablaze when the Springboks conquered the allmighty All Blacks…Ellis Park!

I really enjoyed the experience of playing at this level, and the benefits that come with professional sports- televised games, the lovely sports kits, post practice/ game massages, not paying for your own strapping, having a doctor on standby and the awesome meals that were on offer before games. At some point however, it did become more work than play.

Not that I necessarily minded the work part of semi-pro rugby , however I found that the most fun that I had playing rugby in those days, was when playing for the hostel, for Olienhout. I felt that at that level I could be more relaxed, more creative and exploratory. It seemed that a mistake, or a calculated risk gone wrong was less consequential that when playing at the provincial level where in some way or other, a loss may mean jeopardy to some’s job, or the reputation of the entire establishment.

My experience at the Blue Bulls was that rugby was no longer primarily about fun. It was about results. It was about strategy and tactics. Attach moves, running lines, defense lines, counter attacks and a lever arch file of plays that were practiced and practiced until they became instinct. It was serious business. We were no longer playing for pride, and “for the badge”, as we did at Maritzburg College. The atmosphere was different and the emotional stakes maybe not as high, but definitely…the stake were super high. I will admit thought that I lean more to the view that a win allows you to have fun. There is no fun in loss.

Settling in Pretoria

I suspect that my rugby experience was in many ways a reflection of the internal battles that I was going through in trying to find belonging in Pretoria. I think that part of me ending my rugby career had not only to do with the “serious” nature that the sport suddenly took on. Not that I wasn’t prepared for it or thought that I could “make it” as some of my team mates eventually would do, it just seemed to me the costs (of time with family etc.) the risks (of the industry, the propensity for injuries) outweighed the potential benefits (of money, prestige and thrill).

During the very difficult time of settling in Pretoria, I think being a rugby player, and a Blue Bulls one at that, in many ways softened the blow that reality struck when I arrived. Pretoria had a way of reminding me in a very obvious way, that the colour of my skin was extremely problematic to some. That blue jersey would be like an umbrella that prevented me from being scorched by the fiery rays of racial prejudice.

For many years (while playing, and even until recently) I have struggled with the tension of being proud of that achievement of reaching what others around me only dreamt of. There was an incessant feeling that I never belonged. I struggled with associating myself with many of my team-mates. I rejected being bundled together with the images of the union’s supporters. I struggled accepting that I was only acceptable to many of my fellow varsity and Bulls team mates in part and not whole.

Even though I was playing provincial rugby, some only ever saw me a as quota player, implying that I was not good enough to play rugby and make the team on merit. Whether it be true or not, the point is that I constantly dealt with the nagging question of my belonging. The mental and emotional effort that I needed to exert to constantly resist the temptation to succumb was exhausting.

For many years I felt ashamed to have played for the Bulls. It’s a weird thing because many would say that it is something to be extremely proud of. During the short years at the Bulls, few people in my Pretoria circles knew that I played rugby. Fewer knew that I played provincial rugby…and that would be the case for many years after. At the time I gave away much of my kit- maybe it was a way to shed that identity. I gave away my jackets, tracksuits, shorts, t-shirts and even jerseys. The one jersey that I kept is the one Blue Bulls item that I never got to wear.

u21 Currie Cup Final- Ellis Park

In the year that I played for the Bulls u21 side, we made it to the u21 Currie Cup final and faced the Lions on their home ground- Ellis Park. Though I was selected as part of the starting 15 during most of the season until then, for this particular game I was on the bench. It was a deep disappointment, not just because I was benched, but because in the end I never got to get on the field. I had never I’m career not been in the starting 15- and to not be on the most important game of the season felt like a fail.

I never got to wear the jersey that was “specially made” for the final. We would draw that game 16-16 after full time. After another 30 minutes of extra time without score either way, we would be joint winners of the cup that year. I felt a little like an imposter in the post game celebrations because I contributed nothing to that game that day. In retrospect I realize that that is not 100% true, but it has haunted me for years.

Lessons learnt

I have developed a soft spot for the bencher, for those who don’t get picked, those who don’t feel like they belong, for the excluded and the outcasts. These experiences and lessons may well be amongst the reasons why I do the kind of work that I do today. Through my rugby experiences, and many others, I have come to know what it is like to be on the inner circle. To be popular, to be of high profile and to be looked up to. I also know what it is like to be relegated to the peripherals. It wasn’t just from being benched in one game, there were many other instances and stories not told here. 

Life is not a straight line. It is a journey of hills and valleys, of the bends and straights, of vipers and meadows and mix of joys and sorrows. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Sometimes we are up and sometimes down. Sometimes we are in and sometimes we are out. But it is our ability to enjoy the wins when you get them, and be able to absorb the losses and survive that keeps us in the long run.

“Never let success get to your head and never let failure get to your heart.”

Ziad K. Abdelnour

This year, 2020, may be like the game in which you suffered a massive loss, or the most important game for which you never got picked. As long as we know that life is always in the round-robin stage and not the knock-out stage, provided we choose to give in. Learn the lessons that life puts on offer. Practice being better. Adjust your strategy. Figure out a way to stand up. As long as you get a chance, always choose to run back onto the field and give it another short. Give it your best shot again. And again. And again.

Don’t give up on 2020, on yourself or on your relationships. Don’t give in.

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