THE SE­CRET PLAYER

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Out­side Of rugby ac­quain­tances and col­leagues, i have ex­actly two friends. it’s as many as i can han­dle, and as many as can han­dle me. in fact, i’m slightly sus­pi­cious of any grown man with any more than that. Any­way, we have our sad lit­tle What­sApp group of three and much of the con­ver­sa­tion on there re­volves around cricket.

i haven’t ac­tu­ally seen any tele­vised cricket since the heady days of the 2005 Ashes. so i skim-read Mike Ather­ton and Vic Marks to main­tain the vaguest idea of what’s hap­pen­ing. Oth­er­wise, 60% of that top What­sApp bantz would be to­tally lost on me, for it turns out that cricket – and of course i’m talk­ing test cricket here – is never-bloody-end­ing. What a hellish slog it must be for Root-y, Broad-y, Anderson-y et al.

Mildly di­vert­ing as i’m sure this packed calendar must be for true fans, each test series seems to merge into the next. there’s barely time to re­plen­ish one’s sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion, and watch­ing 13 guys stand in a field en­cour­ag­ing each other for four days may just be los­ing its spe­cial­ness.

in­creas­ingly, the same is hap­pen­ing in rugby. in­ter­na­tional rugby has never been bet­ter to watch. de­spite the law­mak­ers’ best ef­forts to di­lute its bru­tal­ity (see last month’s col­umn), the high­est level is, well, in­cred­i­bly bru­tal. As well as fast, skil­ful and var­ied.

sure, you can get too much of any good thing (or, if Aus­tralia are play­ing, a bad thing) and the con­fus­ingly sched­uled Rugby Cham­pi­onship can leave even the big­gest of rugby nau­ses feel­ing all off­loaded out. How­ever, it still won’t stop us all ex­cit­edly hun­ker­ing down with a crate of own-brand craft lager to watch the glut of rugby that Novem­ber brings. We will even put up with the de­pres­sive me­an­der­ings of cer­tain long-in-the-tooth pun­dits, so ea­ger are we to see how the home na­tions com­pare this year to the fa­bled south­ern hemi­sphere “giants”.

But then, sure as eggs is eggs, our en­thu­si­asm will fol­low a steady down­ward trend and af­ter four weeks of it we will be glad it’s over and that we can get back to re­mem­ber­ing that our kids ex­ist on a satur­day af­ter­noon.

But hang on, what’s this i see on World Rugby’s sched­ule? scot­land are play­ing Wales while ire­land play italy? What the… And just like that, test rugby may have defini­tively jumped the shark. i doubt even Johnny sex­ton’s mum will be in­ter­ested in the out­come of that.

With de­ci­sions to play matches such as this, it’s easy to sym­pa­thise with your Joe Mar­ler types de­cid­ing to pack it in. even 20 bags a game isn’t enough to keep him slog­ging his way through an­other World Cup cy­cle.

the world at large, and even your own sup­port­ers, may not give a fig about the re­sult, but for play­ers each test is a huge phys­i­cal and men­tal com­mit­ment. Other than for a few McCaw-es­que freaks, the pas­sion for your coun­try and all the other good stuff can quickly ex­pire. More so af­ter ev­ery de­feat.

in the name of dis­clo­sure – the ti­tle of this col­umn not­with­stand­ing – i do sym­pa­thise with Mar­ler be­cause i may in the dis­tant past have found my­self in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion. i couldn’t find the will to go through an­other week on the test tread­mill: the mind games from coaches, the scru­tiny, the pres­sure, and at the end of it a proper bat­ter­ing and in­vari­ably an­other loss.

then kids pop along and while you may en­joy the first un­in­ter­rupted sleeps in your team ho­tel, the nov­elty wears off. You may even miss the blighters. so i slouched off into the sun­set, to the last­ing re­gret of no one.

Yes, yes, i’m sure you’re play­ing a lament on the world’s tini­est vi­o­lin for those highly paid stars. All i’m say­ing is it’s not their fault we have so much rugby rammed down our maws. so when you do flick past Ar­gentina play­ing south Africa for the

15th time in a sea­son, spare a kind thought for the poor bat­tered play­ers forced to en­gage in the far­rago.

Heady days The 2005 Ashes series

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