Rugby and ruminations

19:40, Nov 05 2013
Joe Bennett
Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

'The old man's cracked it," said the youth as I handed him a cup of tea, strong and unsweetened as he'd requested.

"Oh good," I said. "Cracked what?"

The youth sipped. "Life," he said.

"Gosh," I said. "I'm all ears."

"Being bald doesn't help."

"No, no. I meant that I'm agog to hear how your old man has, as you put it, cracked it. What does he do for a living?


"Dairy farmer," said the youth. "Saturday night he sat down in his armchair with a bottle of scotch, and two hours later, when the scotch was halfway down the label, he announced he'd cracked it. He seemed pleased with himself."

The youth paused. I waited. He blew on his tea. We were sitting on my back porch. I watched a pair of goldfinches on a head of fennel. Brilliant, nervous birds, their tiny hearts beating three times a second throughout their brief lives.

"Are you going to tell me what he said?"

"Well," said the youth, and again he paused. Milking things clearly ran in the family. "He said that life is like a game of rugby."

It was my turn to pause, to make sense of this nugget. I failed. "Go on," I said, "tell me why your dad thinks life's like a game of rugby."

But before he could speak I raised a hand. "No," I said, "let me guess." For my giant thrumming brain had lurched into gear.

"Is it that life, like rugby, is entertaining but pointless? Or perhaps, more simply, that life is a contest. Pleasure comes from beating the other bugger. But it is not enough merely to win. Someone else must lose. If so, I suspect your old man of cynicism.

"Or greater cynicism still if he means that life is like rugby because both are violent. And the only thing that keeps the violence in check is a set of laws, laws that need to be supported by television match officials and judicial committees, otherwise the game would descend into a brawl. If so, he suggests that we are unremittingly tribal and that our state of nature is one of barely suppressed warfare.

"But I doubt that's your old man's philosophy. Being a gentle harvester of lactose, he's more likely to be of a ruminative disposition. Perhaps he is observing only that both life and rugby are played out on a small and arbitrary patch of turf which seems all important at the time, yet which is surrounded by billions of unexplored acres, contemplation of which lends perspective and diminishes that sense of all importance. Is that his view?

"Or does the similarity lie in the perception of time. For in rugby, as in life, the first half is over before you know it, whereas the second half, can, if we're frank, drag a bit. Especially if you're losing. Am I getting warm?

"Nice tea," said the young man, sipping and smiling.

"Or maybe," I went on, "the old udder-squeezer is thinking along psychological lines. In both life and rugby the enemy is fear. If you fear you'll miss a tackle, you'll miss it. Belief, on the other hand, is your friend. If you believe, down goes the man.

"More philosophically yet, the Oracle at Delphi, the Bible and Shakespeare, all of them rugby enthusiasts, agree that it isn't a bad idea to know thyself. The principle holds true in our national game. We are each endowed with certain qualities unique to ourselves. Wisdom lies not in wishing we were other than we are but in seeing clearly what we are and making the best of it. No amount of practice will make Tony Woodcock a first-five, nor Dan Carter a prop. Do you think this lies at the heart of your old man's aphorism?

The youth drained his tea.

"Though he could be a fatalist, I suppose. In most rugby matches, as in life, it's pretty clear early on who's going to win. And yet it's a given of the game, that even if we're 60 points down we keep trying till the final whistle, driven by that old deceiver hope. Is that the message your father was trying to impart? Or simply, and perhaps optimistically, that after the game everyone goes to the bar?"

"Well," said the youth.

"All right," I said, "I give up. Why is life like a game of rugby?"

"I don't know," said the youth. "The old man just said it and went to bed. He gets up early for the milking, see. Thanks for the tea."

The Southland Times