The rugby pitch, such as it was, looked vaguely like a re-enactment setting for the Battle of the Somme. There was some grass, yes, but between the ongoing drizzle and the previous days of rain, it was mostly muck. And puddles. Lots of puddles. And rivulets—even mini-waterfalls—between lots of puddles. Above, only gray, drizzling sky.
I also happened to notice four or five bodies of water on the so-called pitch which looked to qualify as genuine ponds. Some looked six or seven inches deep. Maybe more. A thought flashed across my mind: Those are deep enough to potentially drown in, if, say, a few guys tackled me, drove me face first into one, and didn't get up quickly enough.
This didn't look like any rugby pitch I'd ever seen. Known as "The Pigpen", it was just a farm pasture at that time—never graded, with no drainage system as on a proper sports field—in the middle of the Cowichan Valley, on Vancouver Island. The Cowichan rugby team called it "The Pigpen" because the farmer who owned the property used it as one during the off-season. Over summer, he would move his pigs in to keep the grass down and fertilize the field. A few weeks before rugby season started, he'd pull the pigs out, let the grass settle and grow, then cut it down a few days before the first game. The Cowichan rugby team had even informally dubbed themselves "The Piggies" in honor of their home field's part-time inhabitants. And now, we were here to play. It would be my first game of rugby ever.
I finally felt ready. A few months earlier, I'd joined the Castaway Wanderers Rugby Football Club and started attending practices. The team fitness drills (one of which I described in Part I) had boosted my cardio. Team skills practices had helped me develop tackling, passing, catching, ball-carrying, and rucking skills. I'd put significant muscle on through serious and consistent weightlifting. I knew the rules well enough. I'd even watched a bunch of games live and on TV to get a general sense of gameplay. So when, a week earlier, the club announced an away game up the highway at The Pigpen, I thought, "It's go time. Now or never".
I now stood on the edge of the rain-soaked Pigpen waiting to run on. I'd be playing right wing. Who knew what injuries—or maybe small glories—awaited? Maybe I'd do something clever. Or embarrassing. Maybe I'd even experience the sporting equivalent of waterboarding at the bottom of one of those mucky, Somme-like swamps. (Guantanamo North). I had no idea.
But I did reckon that Pablo Escobar on his best day could never produce a drug as potent as the explosive adrenaline, testosterone, and cortisol mix—enhanced by a strange combination of fear and fearlessness—now blasting through every part of me.
Long before my blood-sweat-mud cleansing post-game shower eighty minutes later (never had soap felt so good), I was hooked. Yeah, I got smash-tackled on my first carry by one of their goons—and right into a giant patch of muddy water, too. But whatever. Didn't matter. I was okay, so I sprang back up and kept playing. And on it went. I set a few teammates up with offloads and proper passes. I had a few good carries. Smashed a few guys myself. Rucked. Almost scored a try. Didn't do anything dumb. Overall, it was a success.
And in many ways, it was—is—impossible to describe. To play a game of rugby is to shift your entire psyche and body into a state you didn't know existed before. It is to activate otherwise entirely dormant instincts and intuitions, and then, experience their full integration with every part of your body, mind, and even unconscious mind. It is to discover that every part of your mind can process—make decisions based on—new, nanosecond-by-nanosecond blizzards of incoming sensory data, from multiple sources, at light speed, which then instantly translate into dramatic physical response. It's to experience the massive heightening of every sense. Even colors look different during the game. Perception of speed radically changes: at once, as in a car crash, everything slows down, and yet you simultaneously continue to perceive speed in real time. It's two-track speed perception.
There's another strange thing. Because you can only pass the ball sideways or backwards, and your teammates cannot block for you, you can't see most of your teammates when you're ball-running: of necessity, they're behind you as you look ahead. Who you see is your would-be tacklers running toward you. And yet, to work as a team, or at least as a pod of three, four, five guys during any passage of play, you need to know where your teammates are. Who you could pass to, and where they are exactly, and how far you need to throw the pass, and how fast they're running, and at what angle, or if they're changing their running lines, and whether you should veer left or right to pull a potential tackler away from them...how can you gauge any of that without something like 360° vision?
This will sound like an exaggeration, but you actually start to develop 360° vision. You see what's in front of you. But you also see real-time video of what's behind you. How? Through echolocation, certainly (although I still haven't ruled out a bit of telepathy in addition). As you run, the teammates around you call out things like, "Left shoulder", "Wide right", "Switching" (meaning he's running perpendicular to you, behind you, to your other side), "right behind you", "deep left", etc., to let you know where they are. Plus you hear their steps and even their breathing. The sounds literally form themselves into a unified 3-D vision in your head. So you see in front of you, but also behind and around you, at the same time. I mean, you literally can see that as you're running. So when you watch a rugby game, you'll sometimes see ball-carriers complete "no-look" passes to teammates. That's how. (You can see a few examples of no-look passes here and here).
So, as someone who grew up playing basketball, baseball, street hockey, football, and soccer, what I can say is that for the player, rugby is immersive, holistic, essentially mind-altering, intuitive, instinctive, visceral, collective, addictive, brutal, improvised, and more, in ways that make it unlike any other experience except perhaps for (I imagine) hand-to-hand combat. As I say, one game, and I was hooked. Just like everyone else around me, from what I could tell.
But then, there's all the other stuff I keep meaning to get into, outside the game itself. More on that next week.
Mark Steyn Club members can let Tal know what they think in the comments below. Commenting is one of many perks that come along with Club membership, which you can check out for yourself here. Tal will be among Mark's special guests on the upcoming Mark Steyn Cruise along the Adriatic, which sails July 7-14, 2023. Get all the details and book your stateroom here.