I WASN’T meant to be playing that day. I wasn’t meant to be playing at all actually now that I think about it. It was five or six years ago. I was in Italy working as a part-time performance analyst, a part-time underage coach, a part-time Venetian tour guide, part-time barman, and part-time waiter
And on one wet Sunday afternoon, a part-time player in the lower tiers of local Italian rugby after a bunch of the local first-team players were made unavailable because of a wedding. The game wasn’t supposed to be on a Sunday but had been moved by the tournament organisers.
The wedding was on Sunday (for luck) but you’d need all that good luck if you planned on telling an Italian bride and her mother that you, your brothers and your childhood friends couldn’t attend the wedding because of a league game 100 kilometres down the road.
The groom, wanting to live a long, healthy life, decided to take the smart route and binned off the game and his brothers and friends did the same. I began to notice that something was up when the first-team coach texts me on the Wednesday before the game.
For context, the coach never texted me. He didn’t give one single shit about my analysis, or video analysis in general, because he liked to only focus on what his team did and, besides the point, he felt that video analysis was a form of unseemly cheating.
I was only there at all because the president of the club liked the website I did for him for €300 and, when he asked me what he could do for me in return, I said: “bump up my coaching CV pretty please?” so he planted me in as a video analyst and underage coach.
He also loved the idea of Ireland and the Irish because (a) he thought we were good luck and (b) he thought Ireland was a magical, foggy island in the Atlantic that fascinated him, even though he had never been there but that’s another story.
Anyway, the text said, “you are free Sunday”. There wasn’t a question mark. He knew I was “free Sunday” because I was supposed to be at the game videoing it. Those four words told me all I needed to know. I would finally be of actual use to him.
When I text him back saying that I was supposed to be at the game doing video, he clarified that he wanted to know if I was down to play on Sunday. I suppose I was. “It is OK,” he texted back. “We have a tripod for the camera.” Replaced by €30 bit of plastic? A new low.
So anyway, I would be needed at training the day after to get into what we were doing. I wanted to play in the forwards but he didn’t buy my usual trick of turning my 5’11” into a togged out 6’1″ and told me I was too small for the back row.
It would have to be the backs. I could still carry a ball at that point, so I was put into midfield to replace the Best Man. The other wedding attendees were replaced by a ragtag bunch of ringers who would be pretending to be registered players for the purposes of this league game, refereed as it was by a ref from outside the regional fed.
The team we played that Sunday contained six of the biggest guys I’d ever seen on the same pitch like me, at that point. I’d been wiped out by lads on the field before of course – in New Zealand, for example – but none of those guys were dramatically bigger than me in my gigantic togged out state of 6’1″.
Their pack had three guys that were legitimately around 6’6″. One of their second rows was coming up on 6’8″. One of their props was around 6’2″ but hauling 19 stone around under it without a massive gut, which is always scary. The guy playing opposite me in midfield looked around 6’4″ and had shoulders so wide you could legitimately fit two heads either side of his real head and it wouldn’t look crowded.
That day I saw our pack get absolutely annihilated. Out-jumped, out scrummaged, out-mauled, blown back in contact and, to put a technical term on it, absolutely nuked to within an inch of their lives.
I ran into the Roman God Mars in the midfield three or four times on the crash and it felt like running into a large pile of stones. I didn’t find one collision that I wouldn’t lose. Well, actually, I did manage to run over their scrum half off a scrum, but that was a bit like taking pride in getting the shit kicked out of you by Mike Tyson but breaking his knuckle with your forehead.
My day was spent running into brick walls and waving lads through in defence like runway Marshalls in Top Gun. And these guys weren’t even very good. We only lost by 15 points (I think) on the day because they might have looked (and felt) like Thor and his buddies, but they had hands like the Teletubbies.
That game informed me on the reality of the vast majority of rugby games once you get into adulthood. Size wins you games. It was true six years ago and it’s even truer today.