By Brian John Spencer
George Orwell wrote that sport is war minus the shooting. Like a ritualised clash between two tribes sport allows men and women to spill their primal energies, growing and bonding as human beings in the process.
I played rugby every weekend from the age of seven with Instonians at Shane Park, just off the motorway as you reach Belfast from Dublin.
It was the defining aspect of my childhood: instilling discipline and notions of fair play and friendship. Without rugby there is no me. Rugby was not what I did, it was who I was.
I watched Ireland with bursting passion. Being a northerner in divided Ulster and Ireland, and with Presbyterian forebears, rugby gave me identity as well as purpose. I was inextricably Irish, united behind Keith Woods, Paddy Johns and Costello, ‘the Claw’ and every man in the green cotton jersey. Fellow Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI)-alumnus and essayist Robert Lynd long ago captured my match day emotions:
“Every time Bleddyn Williams got the ball I felt as apprehensive as if the frame of civilisation had been threatened. And when Daly scored the second try I experienced such ecstasy as I had known in youth at the news of the relief of Ladysmith”.
I was “excessively interested” and “obsessed”, as Michael Longley described himself and fellow poet Louis MacNeice, with rugby.
It carried me through primary and into grammar school, to the great rugby fortress in Belfast city centre, RBAI. That year 1999, I watched David Humphreys lift the European Cup; my primary school team went on to win the Ulster league.
My dad used to captivate me with visions of playing for the school First XV and travelling to warm weather training in Barcelona.
I was determined if not convinced I would play for Ulster and Ireland.
I established myself centrally within the RBAI rugby system, captaining the A-team in my first three years.
By 2004 I was playing senior rugby. Training three days a week after school, most lunch times, one morning, and playing every Saturday. We travelled to Dublin to play the big southern teams like Blackrock and Belvedere.
In 2005 I got a gash to the back of the head courtesy of Cian Healy. We won the Ulster Schools Cup on March 17, 2005. I missed out through injury: a dislocated shoulder in late February, missing Ulster schools selection that summer.
I wasn’t the outstanding athlete in the school or province, but modelling myself on Neil Back and George Smith I still felt I was in the race to play at Ravenhill and Lansdowne Road.
In 2006 we reached the semi-final, losing against Methodist College Belfast. It still hurts, like an open wound. This was the occasion my dad had spoken of since I was eight years old.
I went to university in Belfast and chose to play for Ballynahinch Rugby Club under the gifted coach Derek Suffern. No Academy contract, but I still felt I was in the race. I was playing 1st and 2nd XV rugby with fringe Ulster players, after all.
Spring 2007 was interesting as Belfast was to host the under-19 Rugby World Cup. This afforded me the chance to compete against the best of my coevals in Ireland.
I was born September 1987, so I missed the cut-off by 4 months. One of the coaches thought I should be considered for selection, until he knew my month of birth. I still thought I was in the race.
I was now going into year two to study Law and French at Queen’s University Belfast. Then in October 2007 I dislocated my shoulder for the second time, surgery followed.
That season was lost. The next season was caught up in the confusion and challenge of living abroad in France. The season after that was engulfed by final-year exams; and by then of course I had become partial to free time, a week-wide social life and those sedentary habits that come with an absence of rugby.
By this stage, 2010 aged 22, I was coming to terms with the fact I would never receive an Emerald Cap.
I wanted to return to the sport and regain some sort glory, form and recognition. Even if it wasn’t for Ulster I could still be a big name in Ulster club rugby.
I gave it a crack in the 2010-2011 season, but lost interest as I was so off the pace.
I came to the mindset, if I was going to play rugby it would have to be to the best standard, all or nothing. No Cap, no play. That (a fear of mediocrity as much as hunger for excellence), burnout and the lack of sporting diversification steered me to boxing.
I then spent a J1 summer in New York in 2011. I ended up at a training session with the New York Athletic Club, coming together with lads from all over Ireland, and former Ulster player Neil McMillan. I had a sudden dawning that rugby was a unique skill that granted its exponents special dispensation, especially in the English-speaking world.
Walk into a town, if you play rugby you suddenly have friends, maybe even a job. It’s not just just about excellence and achievement, but the physical and social act.
I rushed back striving to attain the high pace of a few seasons back. Out of condition I over-stretched myself and did some serious damage to my hip. I have an ache in it that prevents normal exertion to this day.
That was a huge and awful lesson on so many levels.
I have never played properly since. The rugby-playing limb isn’t there but I can feel and miss it intensely. I won’t play for Ulster or Ireland, but the dream hasn’t dissolved, it still hurts on game day.
Interviewed recently, Peter Stringer and Denis Leamy both spoke of the emotion and challenge to being a passive observer when the Irish XV play. That’s me, and I have a feeling it’s the same for most if not all the ardently aspiring amateurs who trained and strained to be a pro, to play at the pinnacle.
Alan Quinlan said far too much pressure and expectation is being burdened on schoolboy rugby. Ronan O’Gara said in a recent interview that star-struck teenagers may never recover from pinning all their hopes and dreams of lining out in Croke Park or the Aviva Stadium.
That’s pretty much me.
The recent article by Jim O’ Callaghan in this magazine was a masterly portrait on rugby in Ireland as I experienced it and see it.
Almost all of my former team-mates who I played First XV school rugby with no longer play rugby. Many contemporaries who played in the 3rds, 4ths or 5ths are still playing.
I have a feeling it’s because they had a regular relationship with the sport. Didn’t overtrain and didn’t place all their chips on winning, thereby allowing them to play into their 20s and 30s for the pleasure and enjoyment.
Why if you were a superstar in schools rugby and in the academy, feted and adulated, would you then tog out to play for a club system and team that is rungs down on the glory and prominence scale?
A school and academy system is not only producing what Shane Jennings called “genetic freaks”, but a generation that has a warped view of the social and cultural role of rugby.
I was reminded in New York what amateur rugby affords people, what a gift and privilege it is to play even at amateur level. Unfortunately, I left it too late. •