An unexpected, close-quarter offload left me flat-footed and side on, as I quickly assessed where to pass with defensive players flooding through hunting for an intercept.
In my pause for thought, I’d left myself open and unsighted. Without bracing for impact, a shoulder smashed into my ribs and I was driven to the turf.
Just minutes into our touch rugby session going live with a brief spell of full-contact, my instincts flicked back to a mentality that has been on ice for 13 months.
“Who took me out?” I thought as I immediately placed myself at first receiver with menacing intent. “Give it to me,” I said, clapping my hands for extra urgency, legs already in a driving position.
My friend from the previous collision had foolishly opted to guard the next ruck as I trucked the ball directly into his path.
‘Bloody hell’ he muttered, putting his body (some three or four stone lighter than mine) on the line to bring me down.
As we both lay on the turf, he added with a smile: “We will call that one-all,” as I helped him up with an outstretched arm and we both got on with the game.
It was a 15-second period where any doubts surrounding my own personal return to rugby were erased.
Fire in my belly
Having not pulled on a pair of boots and tackled an opponent since February 2020, in which time I have celebrated two birthdays to go one year into veteran territory (over 35), would the fire still be in my belly to play rugby?
There, of course, is a wider moral dilemma for rugby players at a community level returning to the sport they love.
The ‘new norm’ has meant I haven’t seen my Pembrokeshire-based father in person for, nearly eight months. He’s not been able to see his granddaughter walk or hear her talk without the aid of technology bridging the geographical gap.
A trip to the supermarket isn’t complete without a last-minute hunt for a facemask and I’ve even held a courteous hand over my mouth when out for a run, panting uncontrollably, as I meander past elderly people on narrow pathways.
Yet here I was, collecting a rugby ball and powering into a friend with the express intent to make a few metres for my side, and salvage some lost pride.
It felt mildly preposterous. How could I uphold high Covid-19 rule compliance levels then engage in an act that left two bodies intertwined on the floor in a crumpled heap?
Taking things slow
The green light for community rugby to return came on Monday, March 29 and with it the right to organise and stage matches under the revised rules which remove scrums and mauls – for the time being.
Most rugby clubs have returned in some fashion, and are pitching themselves at different levels. From April 26, games against other local clubs will be allowed and are being arranged as we speak. Other clubs, including mine; Manor Park RFC in Nuneaton, are taking things a little slower.
It has been four of five months since rugby training took place. The thought of playing a full-blooded game at this stage felt alien. This was our third training session which had combined fitness elements with touch rugby, before our experienced head coach set the dogs free for 10 minutes of contact (current RFU guidance say training sessions should not exceed 20 minutes of contact at this stage).
There remains a slight hesitancy within me. After working from home for 13 months and, barring relaxation periods between lockdowns aside, I’ve become a pretty solitary beast aside from the time spent with immediate family. I know I am not alone.
But society feels like it is in a different place to last time rugby returned. Infection and death rates are tumbling as vaccination numbers soar. Science has informed us that rugby is okay to return, even though I’m still awaiting my call-up to join the vaccinated masses.
Rugby aspired to be one of the first sports to return from the global pandemic but, especially in the United Kingdom, it lagged behind the rest.
While the elite level of the sport has been back playing for nine months now, the second tier only reconvened matches in February – while the ‘grassroots’ has been left to largely ponder life without rugby. I use grassroots in rabbit ears, as this accounts for the thick end of the wedge, factoring in all clubs in level three and below and in the women’s game, everything below the top tier.
Living without rugby
I thought I’d got there; achieved a mindset that didn’t require a rugby training session with friends or a prospect of a game to be content. Then I received that hospital pass, that tackle, and it all fell into place.
Even sat here writing now, I’m feeling my ribs and nursing aches and pains I’ve not exposed my body to in such a long time. Yet I am itching to go and do some more.
While honest enough to admit I wasn’t fully sold on returning to full contact rugby during a global pandemic, there’s an excitement inside of me that only participation in a sport can bring.
It’s a joyous tingle of exhilaration that nothing else can replace. And that flame is being lit once more for thousands of rugby players; men and women, boys and girls, across the country and beyond, as the lifeblood of our great sport finally begins its slow recovery to a level we perhaps took for granted before Covid-19 landed on our shores.
We’ve all made individual sacrifices and rugby’s return is still a compromise with scrums and mauls still representing too great a risk to be deemed acceptable – as does enjoying a beer in clubhouses afterward.
But those days will come. For now, it’s simply liberating to get the boots back on and throw a ball about with some like-minded souls who’ve had a gaping hole in their life for too long.
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