Jonny McCambridge: What I learnt from three years of rugby practice – it’s a lot more fun to watch than it is to play

As I curl up on the sofa with the vague and uncertain intention of composing this week’s column, I find myself becoming quickly distracted.
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The Rugby World Cup is on the telly. The mighty All Blacks are playing Namibia. It is anything but an even contest, but yet I find my eyes continually being drawn towards the television screen.

Unlike a number of the sports which I enjoy watching, I have previous experience of playing rugby. Unusually, it is game in which I found no joy while competing.

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When I was 11-years-old I went to a school where boys had to play rugby. Then I knew nothing of it and nobody who had ever played it before. After some basic introduction, I learnt that passes had to be made in a backwards motion and that the ball, unhelpfully, is not ball-shaped.

Ireland's Conor Murray breaks away during the Rugby World Cup 2023, Pool B match at the Stade de la Beaujoire, France.  Andrew Matthews/PA WireIreland's Conor Murray breaks away during the Rugby World Cup 2023, Pool B match at the Stade de la Beaujoire, France.  Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Ireland's Conor Murray breaks away during the Rugby World Cup 2023, Pool B match at the Stade de la Beaujoire, France. Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

The first-year boys were divided into three groups – the As, Bs and Cs. Perhaps because I was able to run a bit, I was selected as part of the A group. Unfortunately, I was also diminutive and close to useless when it came to handling the ball.

The rugby teacher decided I was to be the full-back. I had no idea what this role entailed, and nobody bothered to enlighten me. Using my intuition, I guessed that it most likely involved me remaining permanently ensconced on my side’s try line as a last line of defence.

The first practice match proceeded for about half an hour before the teacher noticed me standing alone. He enquired what I was doing and then burst into laughter when I explained.

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However, I quickly settled into a pattern of staying after school one evening a week for rugby practice and then playing in a match at the weekend. The rules of rugby are complicated and were incomprehensible to me.

In our first competitive game I touched the ball once, was promptly tackled, and gave away a penalty. It was much later before I realised that you were supposed to release the ball when you fell.

The matches kept coming and I remained inept. Tackling was my main problem. Playing against much bigger and stronger boys I was an ineffective defender. I often found myself faced with a grim choice – attempt to stop a rampaging opponent and risk ending up hurt or allow him to pass unimpeded and be scolded by my teammates.

I developed a coping strategy which consisted of booting the ball away with as much force as I could (hopefully in the right direction) anytime it came into my possession. This worked occasionally but during one match I picked up the ball with our team under pressure near the try line. In a panicked state I attempted to kick for touch but a giant boy on the opposing team grabbed my collar and yanked me off the ground.

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My swinging leg missed the ball completely and I gifted away a try. My feeble efforts caused much hilarity among the few spectators.

I soon developed a dread of the ball coming anywhere near me. The more I fretted, the worse I became. Perhaps because there was simply a dearth of alternatives, the teacher kept me in the A side throughout the first year.

By second year I had been relegated into the B side. This took away the necessity of attending rugby practice after lessons and being humiliated in weekend matches, but it did not entirely end the misery. The weekly double period of games usually included a practice match between the A team and the Bs, a punishing ordeal where a collection of boys who were relatively proficient routinely hammered and ran over the top of those who were clueless.

My school was small and often we did not have enough boys to make up the numbers. This meant that I was occasionally employed in unfamiliar positions. I may have been a poor full-back, but at least there I could stay away from the anarchy of the scrum.

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One week I was deployed as an emergency prop. At the time I probably weighed about seven stone. Being trapped at the bottom of a ruck amid flailing studs and much larger boys collapsing on top of me did little to improve my fitness, either physical or mental.

The ordeal went on. One of the other members of the B team noticed that I was obviously scared to tackle and began to vocally ridicule and mock me during the weekly sessions. This public teasing continued for months. The interesting thing was that I had noticed that this boy was also afraid to tackle and his tactic seemed to be to draw attention among the group to my deficiencies to mask his own. I suffered in silence.

By third year I was doing all that I could to avoid playing rugby. I feigned illness often, forged letters from my parents or deliberately forgot to bring in my kit while I counted down the weeks to the holidays.

By fourth year rugby was an optional activity and the release was immediate and transformative. The sense of dread which prevented me from sleeping the night before double games disappeared immediately. We were now given a choice of sports of play. I joined a ping-pong class which included boys and girls. It was as far away from rugby as I could get.

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Without the threat of actually having to play the game looming over me, I was able to reassess rugby from a safer distance. In my final year at school, the first XV made a heroic run all the way to the final of Schools’ Cup. I had a number of very pleasant days out at Ravenhill following the team followed by equally jolly celebratory nights at Kelly’s nightclub.

And now, as an adult, I find that I take so much enjoyment from watching rugby that the scheduling of the World Cup has severely delayed the completion of this column. It’s a lot more fun to watch than it was to play.