Rugby Training: A Hard Lesson - Part 2
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A week before the first training session was when Luke met Coach Briar for the first time. Due to an unexpectedly quick bus ride, Luke had arrived to the introduction meeting 30 minutes early and found the meeting room at the student union to be empty. He grabbed a chair and got his work out. The first week of the semester hadn't been the slow ramp-up he had been led to believe it'd be. He knew that medical students had a reputation for being keen party-goers, but he didn't see how it was going to be possible to sustain that level of intensity given the sheer quantity of material he was required to learn. As such, he was grateful for even a ten-minute opportunity to review his lecture notes. That morning, he had been assigned his hospital shift timetable which would start the following week. This was the part that he was really looking forward to. Not only did he find it easier to retain information in a practical setting, but his lectures had thus far been quite uninspiring. Of course, he also knew that his physique was likely to attract quite a lot of attention, and he had already spent a few weeks collecting a number of shirts which were still professional but showed his torso off to the full. After all, what is the point of having it if you aren't going to benefit from it? The fact that university life hadn't yet been as inspiring as he had expected made him even more enthusiastic about this evening's meeting. He didn't know quite what to expect, but rugby had been his life since he was five, so he was bound to be able to fit it in to some extent.
At that moment, he heard footsteps behind him. Turning around, a guy in a tight rugby top and sweat pants entered the room -- as soon as he saw Luke, he broke out into a smile. `Well, you must be part of the new cohort', he said, throwing down the sports bag onto the top table. Luke laughed nervously, `Yeah, I've just started my first year of med school'. `Aha, then you must be Luke, right? I'm Coach Briar -- I train a number of different university teams but its primarily rugby-based.'. `Nice to meet you, Coach', said Luke, `but how did you know my name?'. `Well, it was partly a guess and partly a process of elimination. James filled me in on the welcome event and said they'd found a top-quality hooker who was studying medicine, and by the looks of you, you'd certainly fit the bill! How long have you played?'. Luke found that he wasn't as nervous as he'd imagined he'd be. People always assumed that -- judging by the way he looked -- he would be a lot more confident than he actually is. `I've played since I was five, so about 17 or 18 years. I'm a bit late to go to university to be honest, as I took some time out to do a stint in the army. It was the only way I could afford to do medicine -- after three years, you become eligible for a scholarship. Have been working on the side as a rugby coach though for a number of teams in the London area. I've got some videos if you'd like to see them'. Luke had only said this to try to convince Coach Briar that he wasn't bullshitting him, but as it came out of his mouth, the tone made it sound like he was trying to show off. He cringed involuntarily. Coach Briar laughed, `Go on then. Show me what you've got!'. Luke now begrudgingly got his phone out and opened up Youtube. He knew which video would show his skills off best and went straight for it. It had been filmed at the previous year's cup final, when Luke had happened to not only be on particularly good form, but had a higher than average number of opportunities to prove it.
Sometimes, when his confidence was low, he'd watch this video to show to himself what he knew he was capable of. Of course, being able to tackle someone with such exactingly effective precision was probably not going to come in all that useful in a hospital setting, but it did at least show that, if he put his mind to it, he had the capability to rise to the top. Coach Briar watched it in complete silence. Once the 2 minute video had finished, he walked up to the front of the room where his things were and starting unpacking his bag. Luke didn't really know what this meant. Coach Briar then paused and looked up at Luke. `Right, well by the looks of things, you're well above what I would even hope for from our second and third-students, let alone first year. So, we'll probably need to reconsider your participation in the buddy programme.' Luke looked confused, so Coach Briar continued. `As I'll explain in the meeting, the buddy program is where we pair all new joiners, so mostly first-year students with a second or third year student as their mentor. It just makes integration easier and also encourages interaction amongst players. If new guys have questions or concerns, then they have someone to ask. Also, we tend to pair up guys with similar roles on the pitch so that each pair can then organise their own informal training sessions. It isn't compulsory of course, but most guys tend to like it. Only problem is that -- unless that video is a fake, then you'd probably end up teaching your mentor rather than the other way round! I've not done it before, but I'm tempted to make you an honorary mentor for one of the other new guys.'
Luke didn't know what to say. He'd never experienced such quick belief in his abilities before -- rugby or otherwise. `Well, I mean, that's really kind of you coach, but I wouldn't want to rock the boat.' Coach Briar laughed, `Oh, you won't rock any boats -- our team isn't like that. My only concern is that you wouldn't be as familiar with the social side of stuff, but the thought of missing out on the opportunity of having someone with your talent take on a prop or two is unthinkable.' Let me give some thought to how we can get it to work.
`Talking of props, I saw a guy at the welcome event who might be turning up this evening. Malcolm is his name, if I remember correctly.' Luke paused. `From what I heard, he isn't all that experienced, but he has the perfect body for being a prop.'
Coach Briar smiled to himself inside. Young people never failed to amuse him. He'd always assumed that this sort of thing would be generational and that it would have died out after a few years, but it just kept happening. That tone of voice when he said `but he has the perfect body for being a prop'. He must have heard it a hundred times. A tone full of sexual tension and hope. Of course, 20-somethings never seemed to be aware that they were doing it, let alone that others might be able to hear it. But to whatever extent the feelings went, it was clear to Coach Briar that he would gladly get to know this Malcolm better. More to the point, Coach Briar would have nothing against getting to know Luke better, but it tended to be best to avoid that, unless the situation demanded it.
At that moment, the lairy sound of the previous year's players made its way from down the corridor. James in particular had a voice which carried a long way. To Coach Briar, he sounded like a human foghorn. Still, this wasn't a bad thing. On the pitch, people couldn't but not hear what he was shouting. It was one of the mean reasons why Coach Briar intended on making him captain this year. After all, he had shown a strong desire to improve and overcome a lot of obstacles in the process. He just hoped that it wouldn't go to James' head, as it wouldn't suit him.
Slowly, the players all turned up. It wasn't a bad batch, thought Coach Briar. It was already clear -- as always -- which of them would drop out after 2 or maybe 3 weeks, especially once the last of the autumn weather died away and winter hit. In fact, it may be sooner this year, as signs of winter had already started to show themselves. He called the guys to attention and began to give his usual speech. Suddenly, the door flung open and a guy ran in in a sweat, clearly worried that he would miss the beginning of the meeting. `Don't worry, we've just started. Take a seat', he said to the new arrival. And that is when he realised that this must be Malcolm. The way Luke's face ever so slightly changed made this perfectly clear. You've got to hand it to him, thought Coach Briar, Luke was much better than others he had known at hiding his feelings. In fact, if he hadn't been looking out for it, he might even have missed it. But, having seen it, it was clear that Luke was more than just a little bit interested in this guy. And why not? He bulged in all the right places. Coach Briar dreaded to think how attractive any offspring they had would end up being.
The meeting went much to plan. Coach Briar gave his prep talk on team-thinking. The older guys had heard it before, of course, but it was important to make it clear from the start. Very often, it ended up being the overriding factor or success in a team and, given the quality of the newbies they seem to have netted, this mattered now more than ever. Given events last year, Coach Briar was keen to watch James' reaction and he didn't disappoint. Like a captain in waiting, he set an example to the team through his actions by paying attention and giving others the eye to make sure they paid attention too. Wanting to test the water, Coach Briar added an extra line to the end of his speech while staring directly at James: `...If you succeed, you'll gain the respect of your teammates. If not, you'll soon find yourself... well, let's work on the assumption that nobody will find out what happens'. Coach Briar didn't know how James would react, but the result was spectacular. As soon as the words `If not' had escaped his mouth, James slowly turned to look at Coach Briar -- slowly enough not to attract attention --, looked him right in the eyes, and smiled. Wow, thought Coach Briar. It was clear that the medicine had had a positive effect on James last year. Coach Briar had already seen how he had gone from being an average player to a good player with strong leadership qualities. His voice had even got that much more confident. But that smile. Contrary to what Coach Briar thought possible, it was clear that James must have actually enjoyed what had happened to him. This pleased Coach Briar -- clearly he was another successful convert. He had no concerns about making him captain now.
Coach Briar then gave out the information sheets, which he was sure nobody had ever read, and gave them shopping lists for equipment in preparation for the first training session in a week's time. Given how it had gone, Coach Briar had high hopes for this season. Maybe they'd finally win the university league cup they'd now three times come so close to winning.
The week until the first training session went very quickly for everyone. Coach Briar always had a busy first week of each year, as he held the individual introduction meetings for each sport and team. Likewise, beginning work at the hospital kept Luke's mind off of pretty much everyone else. Much to his relief, he really enjoyed the work. It was long hours, but the managers were very supportive and were happy to informally rearrange the official timetables to accommodate other commitments, such as rugby training.
When the following Wednesday eventually arrived, the weather had already turned cold. Coach Briar knew that this was bad news -- it took newbies a while to learn the ropes and the turn of the cold weather always resulted in a few losses. Likewise, the less time newbies had to build a connection with the sport, the more likely they were to stop coming. All this was bad news for this year's team. First was the buddy line-up. Coach Briar had already spoken to Luke in the changing rooms and asked if he would be willing to be an honorary mentor and he happily accepted. After all, if who he ended up with had non-rugby questions, he could always defer to a more experienced guy.
Once on the pitch, Coach Briar asked the players to split into newbies and non-newbies, facing each other in height order. To be honest, it didn't really matter too much who was paired with whom, as people ended up finding their natural position over time anyway. He told them all that the person staring at them from the other side of the line-up would be their buddy. But it was then that Coach Briar noticed James's eyes. Instead of staring straight ahead, his were darting to his right. Coach Briar wasn't too sure why until he saw who was standing opposite him. Although he was trying to hide it, Malcolm was clearly transfixed by the sight of Luke in his rugby kit standing opposite him on the left. And who wouldn't be. With the power of those legs and upper body, sex with him would be nothing short of pneumatic. It turned out that James was just trying to work out what Malcolm was looking at. To keep the two apart would be intolerable. And Malcolm would make a much better prop under Luke's tutorage than a forward under James, in any case. He didn't want to make things too obvious though. So, first he substituted Matthew to be with Tim, which didn't matter anyway, because Coach Briar didn't give Matthew more than 3 weeks. And then, he swapped Malcolm to be with Luke. Again, Coach Briar could immediately see that Luke would be thanking him for this, though he was clearly fighting tooth and nail to stop it showing on his face. His stamina was impressive though. In this cold wind, most of the newbies were starting to bend over but Luke -- who was wearing shorts rather than sweat pants -- stood straight up, not moving, legs apart and hands behind his back. It was clear to Coach Briar that he hadn't been lying about that army training. It had done him good.
The next few weeks were hard-going. The newbies were suffering in the cold and it was hard to keep them motivated. Yet, most buddies managed to put in the extra hours for training. It was clear, however, that Luke and Malcolm needed no such encouragement. They had hit it off right away. From what he gathered, they met practically every day with Malcolm travelling by bus to the park next to where Luke had his hospital shifts, doing his seminar work on the way, then spending at least 30 minutes practicing various rugby techniques.
Mid-November, the qualification games for the cup began on Sundays and it was clear that Luke and Malcolm were like a well-oiled team. Luke would take the forward down and Malcolm would scoop up the rewards. They had won four out of five games, taking them through to the knock-out rounds and -- as much as Coach Briar would never openly admit it -- this is was in large part due to the Luke-Malcolm duo.
One training session, however, things changed. There was something about Luke that wasn't quite right: his angles were off and his timing shoddy. Coach Briar had learnt that piling pressure on in this scenario rarely helped. During the break, he approached him and asked what was wrong and the answer was immediately apparent. Luke swung his water bottle to point at a guy sitting in the benches on his own. `Alex', he said matter-of-factly. `Supposedly one of Malcom's best friends from his student dorm, but there's something that isn't right. He, err...'. For all his positives, thought Coach Briar, Luke certainly wasn't good at strategy. He had boxed himself into a corner, as it was clear that -- when Coach Briar asked him the logical next question -- he wouldn't be able to answer without giving the game away. Coach Briar decided to take pity on him and pulled him to one side.
`Look, I wasn't born yesterday, kid.', he said in his strong Glaswegian accent. `It is quite clear that you have some level of feelings for Malcolm, and I don't know if you have noticed, but is far from unreciprocated. That's fine. But convincing yourself that every other guy Malcolm meets is a potential threat isn't going to appeal him to you.'
Luke was gobsmacked. How did Coach Briar know? How long had he known? `Well, I guess that doesn't really matter now', he thought. But maybe this was the right time to confide in his coach. He hesitated. `Sir, what do you think of Malcolm?'. Coach Briar didn't know how to answer: `What do you mean? He is a good player, if that is where you are going.'. `Yes, he is', responded Luke, `but he needs that little bit extra. Sometimes he hesitates in front of the ball and gives the opposition vital opportunities. Luckily, that hasn't happened in a match yet and I'm working on trying to stamp that out but it's the last 5%, I can't get the last part. But... it's more than that also. Look, I care about him, I really do, but I want him to be stronger. He flinches in the cold, he wears sweat pants instead of shorts to training, he is very susceptible to his external environment and that was knocked out of me during army training. I don't know, you'll think I'm strange when I say this, but I want to knock it out of him also. I want to see him be able to take more control. If it is going to work between us, and I do want it to, then I need him to overcome that barrier. I want to be able to rely on him no matter what happens.' `Wow, you have higher expectations of people than I have of my players! Never thought that would happen!', Coach Briar laughed. `Look, let's see how it goes. Let's just say, I'd be willing to help. After all, I don't like what you say about him hesitating -- that could cause us to unravel.'
Things progressed nicely in the run-up to Christmas. The duo of Malcolm and Luke continued to pay dividends for the team until the draw for the knock-out round was announced: the next match and final match of the semester would be mid-week against Wallow University, one of the strongest teams in the league. This was going to be difficult. Being a sports academy, the university not only appealed to those who were good at rugby in the first place, but then supported them with some of the country's most state-of-the-art equipment to boot.
Everyone in the Linden team knew that they had to get their game together. They all put in extra hours both at both the gym and on the pitch until match day, hoping that they wouldn't get knocked out at this early stage. Happily, Luke felt like he had had a breakthrough with Malcolm to reduce his natural inclination to hesitate. As far as Luke was concerned, they were as ready as they'd ever be for the match.
Match day came and the players entered the changing rooms. They all had high spirits as they got into their kit and Coach Briar was relieved to see it. He knew that morale played a huge role in a team's ability to win a game and James was doing an excellent job as captain to keep it up. He'd lost that immaturity from the beginning of last year. No longer was he fixated on knob-jokes and a desire to mock those around him. When Coach Briar entered the changing room, he was taken aback to see all the players crowded around James, who was giving them an impromptu prep talk. Coach Briar usually tried to dissuade this kind of behaviour, as a wrong move from an inexperienced captain could sow the seeds of doubt in the other guys' minds, but you could tell from James' voice that this was different. The sense of certainty, belief and aggression at such a high volume was riling up his fellow players into a frenzy and it was clear that James was focussed fully on winning the match and nothing else. Finishing his prep talk, all the guys cheered at James and turned around to leave the changing rooms. Coach Briar hadn't given his usual talk yet, but what on earth could he say to get them more enthused and focussed than they already were?! He stood to one side and patted them on the back, smiling, as they left to go onto the pitch, the sound of studs against tiles reverberating round the room.
At the back of the queue, James approached the door with a big smile on his face. As he passed Coach Briar, he stopped and looked at him, letting the door in front of him swing closed after the previous player. They were now alone in the changing room. Coach Briar took a moment to admire him. Okay, he was shorter than some of the other guys, but he made up for it in bulk. From what he had heard, other team members were now referring to him as the `pocket rocket', which had made him laugh. But it was true -- he was turning out to be one of the fastest forwards Coach Briar had ever taught with a willingness to attack through even the most intimidating of lines. It was actually quite ironic. Although he had always told his forwards the mantra that `no opposition line is insurmountable', it was only James who had really proven to Coach Briar that this frankly unrealistic inspirational phrase was actually true. It turns out that, when you have so much self-belief as James now had, you could always find a way through. Still, it would be nice if he passed the ball out to his teammates sometimes.
`Sir, I wanted to thank you'. Coach Briar was taken aback, but not unhappy. `What for?', he asked. `Well, you've made me into what I am.', he replied. `Go on...', said Coach Briar, trying to supress a smile. `When I failed in that match last year, you had a choice. You could either have given up on me, or used that opportunity to turn me around, and you did the latter. At the time, I was scared of accepting what I saw as a punishment. But since then, I've realised that -- although it wasn't enjoyable -- it has changed me for the better. As such, I don't see it as a punishment anymore. In comparison to what happened to me during those four days, and the bravery I had to muster to get through it all, everything else is now just child's play. I had to give a presentation during a lecture on Monday, just like I had to do last year. I've gone from getting a D to an A. Thanks to you, I didn't doubt myself, but instead just accepted that it had to be done and got on with doing it well. So, I'd like to say thank you. I know that you didn't enjoy doing it to me, so consider me in your debt.' Coach Briar couldn't believe what he was hearing. `I didn't enjoy it?!', he thought to himself. Wow, James must really have bought into what he had said. Frankly, of all the players he has subjected to `the process', James was by far and away the most enjoyable. The memory of his twinkly face and the range of emotions it had shown -- from pain to disgust to anger and back again --, and knowing that he had held the power to make it all happen... it was all Coach Briar could do to not get an erection there and then. `Right, let's go win this game', said James. With that, he threw his gum shield in his mouth, quickly stretched his head left and right, jumped up, let out a grunt and ran out the door onto the pitch. Smiling, Coach Briar turned and followed him out to the game. This was going to be good.