My blackened left lamp

Robin
Robin Short
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And other injuries incurred on the rugby field

We are one. Together we will walk,forever ... We are tight.

How can you not be anything else when, with complete strangers, you are welding the side of your head to some guy's ass, while reaching your right arm up under another man's crotch, holding tight the front of his shorts, all in the name of the scrum?

Though a little long in the tooth and perhaps much longer in the waistline periphery, I remained undaunted last week in my endeavour to uncover the phenomena that is rugby, a sport that has grown from bit status - played by maniacs in its infancy, some would maintain - to an elite level, played by elite athletes, in front of crowds that traditional summertime sports could only dream of luring.

Sports editor Robin Short takes a hit from Chris Burt during a rucking drill. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Sports scene -

We are one. Together we will walk,forever ... We are tight.

How can you not be anything else when, with complete strangers, you are welding the side of your head to some guy's ass, while reaching your right arm up under another man's crotch, holding tight the front of his shorts, all in the name of the scrum?

Though a little long in the tooth and perhaps much longer in the waistline periphery, I remained undaunted last week in my endeavour to uncover the phenomena that is rugby, a sport that has grown from bit status - played by maniacs in its infancy, some would maintain - to an elite level, played by elite athletes, in front of crowds that traditional summertime sports could only dream of luring.

Despite its success - The Rock senior team has won three Canadian championships in four years, an unprecedented feat - rugby remains largely an enigma in these parts, understood by few, but admired by many.

To the casual fan, hooker can have only one meaning.

A try could be construed as a good effort, but ultimately confronted with failure.

It is, perhaps, this ignorance that keeps rugby from becoming mainstream, at least when measured up to the summer staples that are soccer, softball and baseball.

But while the nuances of the game may be foreign to most, this much we do understand: it is a very tough game, played by - in most instances - very tough men.

It is a game where, to the uninitiated, nitro meets glycerin. Mayhem might be its mantra.

But to those who play the game and follow it closely, there is a method to the madness, where the aim is - as in football - to march the ball up the field for a score (try). But unlike the American sport, a bastardization of rugby, there is no flinging the ball forwards in this game, whose world championship - the World Cup of Rugby - is the third largest worldwide sporting event, after the Olympics and the World Cup of Soccer.

"It's full-contact chess," maintains provincial coach Pat Parfrey.

Parfrey is the engine behind the rugby machine that is a Canadian force, from the senior level to Canada Games age group. A feisty Irishman, he is a doctor who came to Newfoundland many years ago and, like the other rugby-playing foreigners, fell in love with the place (is it no coincidence rugby has perhaps a higher share of doctors involved than any other sport, with Noel Browne and Dick Barter and soon-to-be physician Andrew Fagan joining them?)

Parfrey drives his players mercilessly. Rare is the moment he doesn't see a mistake, and even more infrequently that he doesn't call out his player, often with a volley of profane adjectives thrown in for good measure.

Yet he is adored by his troops who would, to a man, go to the proverbial wall for their coach.

It was Parfrey who allowed me to practice with the Rock, and it was Dr. Parfrey who perhaps should have prescribed narcotics for the unavoidable post-practice sore muscles.

My introduction to rugby was relatively swift, five or 10 minutes into practice when young Chris Burt, a big kid who apparently carries tons of potential, introduced my spleen to my spine with a thunderous hit during a rucking drill, where the ball carrier, followed by two others, dashes straight into a player holding a sponge shield.

It was on this play, I believe, that my left lamp was blackened, to Parfrey's post-practice glee.

The upside to this was the next ball carrier, Danny King - a Zamboni with a head and shoulders - thankfully opted to veer into my partner, big Phil Alcock, rather than the guest reporter, still smarting from the Burt hit.

"It's definitely a subculture," said Burt. "Everyone who plays gets hooked. Maybe it's the game, but it's great to be part of a winning culture, too."

Parfrey beams with pride when chatting about his charges. You get the feeling he feels they are underappreciated as fit, elite athletes.

While the general belief is rugby is a game designed for those of the beefy pedigree, it is actually a game for all - for the squat, muscular type, the tall, rangy sorts and those of the smaller, darty persuasion.

But there is no sugar-coating a single, common denominator - it is not a game for the faint of heart.

"Injuries," chuckled Burt, "I've got about four of them on me. But you learn to live with them."

"There is a mistaken belief," contends Parfrey, "there are more injuries in rugby. Within the rugby technique, there is a skill to tackling properly, and receiving a tackle."

It's a skill lost on your correspondent.

The end result of 90 minutes of practice - we can only imagine what the game brings - is a condition that may be best reported as a case of full-body gout.

But it didn't come without some satisfaction, harvested on an open-field tackle which, I should add, impressed King.

That it was made on an under-20 player does not diminish the feat. Of course, the play will be recounted many times over within the office, and the ball carrier will be the great Canadian international, Rod Snow.

It's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

When Parfrey blows the final whistle, he gathers the troops together near midfield to talk about the upcoming game against New Brunswick, which is not expected to provide much competition.

He announces young Evan Buckley is getting his first start.

Afterwards, within the Swilers Rugby Club locker room, Parfrey - showing an infrequent display of compassion - asks how I am. My back is sore, I've got a shiner and my big toe's aching after getting walked on (I complained to Simon Blanks, the Welsh assistant coach, about the latter malady, only to be told, "You're still standing, aren't ya?").

Parfrey, smiling, isn't overly concerned.

Perhaps what hurts the most, however, is that my hope of dressing for Saturday's game - however remote - was dashed with the Buckley announcement.

Funny thing is, I'd like to do it again.

Us rugby players, we're like that.

Robin Short is The Telegram's Sports Editor. He can be reached by e-mail at rshort@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Swilers Rugby Club

Geographic location: Newfoundland, New Brunswick

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Recent comments

  • Who
    July 02, 2010 - 13:19

    as i look down through the recent sports stories i continue to see no mention of baseball. Women's soccer is there, as is rugby (two no less), and even a softball story get's thrown in there. At least there was no curling i guess.

    Can any actual sport, where people actually play outside of this province make it into the paper? NO one cares about lady's soccer, rugby is played by virtually no one, and softball should be abolished. So please thrown in a decent sports story now and then about an actual sport

  • Who
    July 01, 2010 - 20:02

    as i look down through the recent sports stories i continue to see no mention of baseball. Women's soccer is there, as is rugby (two no less), and even a softball story get's thrown in there. At least there was no curling i guess.

    Can any actual sport, where people actually play outside of this province make it into the paper? NO one cares about lady's soccer, rugby is played by virtually no one, and softball should be abolished. So please thrown in a decent sports story now and then about an actual sport