RATH: Return to rugby, and pre-game rituals

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Brumbies' Stephen Moore talks to his teammates. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

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Post-game travel days vary little and usually involve lots of sore bodies, packing, long flights, aeroplane food, being annoyed by Nic White, flight delays, buses, punching Nic White, airport terminals and lost luggage before finally arriving home to the comfort of love ones and a familiar bed.

As I write this I’m sitting on a plane heading from Darwin to Brisbane after which I’ll hop on a connecting flight to Canberra.

Yesterday we managed to get a narrow victory over the Force in Darwin. I’ve never been to Darwin much less played rugby there. Labelling Darwin as ‘hot’ is to hopelessly fail to convey the oven-like conditions in the Top End.

The moment you step out of the airport terminal the humidity engulfs you in a way that makes finding air conditioning the sole purpose of one’s life. Training in these conditions gives new meaning to the words ‘cruel and unusual’ and yet our coaches seemed to enjoy it no end.

I shared a room with Dan Palmer. Dan is a hybrid, an interesting mix of new age and old school prop. Along with an intellectual curiosity rare among front rowers Daniel possesses a real passion for scrums, the kind of forward to whom every knock-on is a gift from the scrum gods, another chance to shorten somebody’s spinal column and destroy their confidence in the process. Lovely stuff.

Rooming with Dan I learnt he prides himself on being some kind of energy conservation guru. If sleeping were an Olympic sport Dan would long since have raised suspicion among anti-doping authorities. During the week I also learnt sauce is Dan’s favourite food and standing behind him at the buffet represents a poor option for the hungry.

Dan likes to list ‘professional athlete’ on his CV, but when we scratch the surface of these words they quickly translate into ‘pushing fat people backwards’. In a country where scrummaging is not prioritised in the same way it is in other parts of the world, we need props like Dan needs sauce on his steak – a lot.

It’s a real shame Australian rugby has failed to retain Dan’s services, he could well be the anchor around which the Wallaby scrum is built. Instead Grenoble will enjoy his services over the next few seasons.

News that current Wallabies are looking for contracts overseas is a concern when many of them are well under retirement age. This cannot be allowed to become a trend if the Wallabies are serious about becoming the best team in the world.

Speaking of retirement age, I’ve enjoyed getting back onto the paddock. To be honest I’ve been far less nervous than I expected.

Every player has some kind of emotional response to the anticipation of competition, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to see rugby for what it is – a game. Results begin to matter less than the individual moments that go into chasing them.

Effort, commitment, team. These qualities never stop being important and ironically it’s been my experience it’s easier to give more to them when the focus is ‘the moment’ rather than ‘the outcome’.

In many ways game day preparation is a metaphor for life. The challenge is to not lose the current moment by worrying about the future. I try and treat game days as I would any other, by attempting to enjoy them as much as possible.

This might mean reading, coffee with mates, a swim, movie, writing, sightseeing or any number of activities I might find interesting.

By following the mantra of remaining in the now, I’ve managed to arrive at matches mentally focused but equally relaxed, stimulated but not frantic. I have a fairly flexible game day routine that becomes more scripted as the game nears.

From around 3pm my match day looks a little like this: Pre-game meal, foam-rolling, mobility warm up, stretching followed by team meetings and arrival at the ground. Unlike Sam Carter, who sports an ancient pair of offensive underpants on game day, I don’t have any pre-game superstitions or rituals.

I don’t care where I sit on the bus or in the change-room, but because I suspect many of my team mates prefer routine on game day I usually find myself on the same seat on the bus, wondering if perhaps it’s this collective sympathetic thinking that produces the order we’ve become used to.

Interestingly, once you’re into the game it’s easy to focus on the multitude of jobs at hand, run to cover a potential kick, make a tackle, run a line or hit a ruck. Playing the game requires the type of focus that does not leave room for introspection.

Recently I was required to explain the game of rugby to my very English, very football-orientated girlfriend.

It was only while detailing how my job involves running around with my mates, occasionally bashing into other people while trying to place a giant egg over some white paint that it dawned on me what a truly strange game rugby is.

Even the seemingly simple act of a scrum turns out to be a conundrum to those not familiar with the game.

My exchange with said girlfriend went something like this:

AK: “Why is it called a scrum?”

Me: “Because thicket was already taken. Actually I don’t know the answer to that.”

AK: “Why can’t they use their hands?”

Me: “They can but only at the back of the scrum, it’s really much simpler than it seems.”

AK: “Why would anyone enjoy smashing their head and necks into other people?”

Me: “Probably something to do with not being hugged enough as children. Why don’t we come back to scrums after I’ve explained the breakdown; quantum mechanics will seem simple after that.”

Despite how complex rugby might seem, I find myself enjoying playing again for the same reasons I first turned up at practice as a barefoot six year old. Because it’s good fun.

In many ways playing rugby allows me a bit more time to hide from the inevitable reality of becoming a grown up. And who wouldn’t appreciate that?

Former Wallaby Clyde Rathbone has returned to Super Rugby with the ACT Brumbies, following an injury-forced retirement from all forms in 2009. He writes columns for The Roar and has made his return to top level rugby with the Brumbies. Follow Clyde at his blog or via his Twitter page.
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