Rugby Training: A Hard Lesson - Part 3
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The referee checked his watch -- it was 77 minutes and 38 seconds into the game. The ball had gone out of play and so a scrum had been called. As they assembled at the right-hand side of the pitch, the members of the scrum on the Linden University side looked at each other. At half-time, they had been 27-0 up and had gone back into the changing rooms in high spirits. They had refreshed, drunk some water, topped up on sugars and entered the second half with a burst of enthusiasm. But something had changed. They had managed to take advantage of Wallow University's disorder in the first half -- it was clear that the usually top-league team hadn't been on form. They had missed vital opportunities as a result of several miscalculations and suffered a strong defeat. But at the beginning of the second half, this was no longer the case. Whatever had happened in the break had given them a new lease of life. They were stronger, faster, more efficient in their teamwork than Linden University were and they were starting to claw their way back. This would have been bad enough, but the less experienced Linden University players had allowed themselves to be unnerved by this. If they had just retained their composure, then they would no doubt have been able to stop the opposition from overcoming their first-half loss, but the way things were looking, anything could happen. It didn't help that the skies had opened up for 10 minutes and the players were pretty much soaked through. The score was now 27-22 to Linden. They were still in the lead, but they knew that a single try would bring the scores equal. There was only a few minutes left with potentially up to 5 minutes extra time. They had already rearranged their tactics to that of defence, prioritising the defending of the try line rather than to break through the opponent's forwards. However, Wallow just kept on getting through and Linden weren't sure how they could stop it. They hadn't made any mistakes per se, but Wallow were just able to run circles around them. Now the attacking fly-half had clearly found an extra spurt of energy and was able to use this against the worn-down Linden defence to slowly bring the playing line ever closer to the try line. This scrum was now only 20m away.
The ball went in and, thankfully, it went Linden's way. Craig, the full-back grabbed the ball and passed it out to the side. James caught it and ran, if nothing else, just to get the playing line away from the danger zone. Coach Briar looked on from the side. He could see the look of determination on James' face and willed him on. He squeezed through what was an admittedly poor defence on the Wallow team -- as they had been prioritising their attacking position -- and kept going until he was tackled from behind by the opposition's hooker, who had run after him at an astonishing pace. Levelled out on the ground, James had nobody to pass the ball to and so, much to his annoyance, Linden lost possession.
And then it happened. Luke saw him coming: the number ten fly-half had gained possession of the ball, put his head down and charged towards Linden University's defensive line with a speed and brutality that Malcolm had never seen before. Yet Luke still jumped. He flew through the air and landed at exactly the right spot to cause maximum impact. Both Luke and the fly-half landed head-long into the muddy surface of the playing field and Malcolm knew that it was his turn. In the impact of the fall, the ball had slipped from the fly-half's hands and rolled towards Malcolm. Yet, seeking a chance to make good of the opportunity, the opposing team's hooker ran towards the ball to pick it up. Seeing the size and speed of the hooker coming in his direction, Malcolm froze. Realising what was happening, Luke shouted out `grab the ball!', but it was too late. Malcolm's fear -- the thing he had been warned about and been trained to discard for months -- had come to pass. That millisecond hesitation meant that, when Malcolm ran for the ball, he was pipped to the post by the hooker, who then passed it on to a teammate, going on to score a try and therefore bringing the score to 27-27. Malcolm saw all of this from his position on the floor, in the mud, having been knocked down by the forward in the ensuing charge. Of course, he didn't need to be told that an equalising try in the final minutes of a game was bad news, but the worst part was yet to come. If the opposition were able to win their conversion, the chances of Linden having the time to do something about it were slim to none. Okay, a draw would potentially be bearable, but a loss after having been 27-0 up at half time would not. The opposition were now in good spirits, being on the verge of making an epic come-back and Malcolm feared that their best kicker, the fly-half, may just be able to give his team what it needed. On his way to the kick-point, the fly-half walked past Malcolm and said, `Thanks for the Christmas present', at which point he ran up to the ball, went straight into a kick and pushed it square through the middle of the goal posts. It was now 29-27 to Wallow University.
For all their effort, Linden just couldn't get close to scoring another try in the remaining time. It was clear that most of the players were tired and their concentration was going as a result. James tried his hardest to motivate them, screaming out orders to people to pass the ball up, but the opposition was just too fired up. They had found their wings and were making stride after perfect stride. Contrary to their performance in the first half, the opposition were now working like a well-oiled machine.
After two minutes of extra time, the whistle went and it was easy to see that Malcolm's team-mates were dejected. Heads slung, they all trudged over to the entrance to the tunnel in order to drown their sorrows under the shower. Coach Briar was waiting for them outside the door. Patting everyone on the back and commiserating them as they went in, it was clear that he was equally as disappointed as the players. Indeed, he didn't even congratulate James on his 3 tries in the first-half, instead just offering a `sorry, mate' as he put his hand on his shoulder. Malcolm, about half-way through the line of players, assumed that he would likewise get a commiserative pat on the back, but when he got to where Coach Briar was standing, he instead put his hand on Malcolm's chest and pushed him gently to the other side of the entrance, so that the rest of the players were now walking between them. While Coach Briar continued to commiserate the rest of the players, he stared through them to fix his eyes with Malcolm's. A lot of Malcolm's passing teammates raised their heads to give him a look, whether of anger, disappointment or frustration. The look he was given by Luke was almost unbearable, as if the hours of effort he had put in to Malcolm's training, helping him to be the best, had been for nothing. It was in this moment -- right now -- that he felt he fully understood what Coach Briar had said at their introduction meeting before the first training session:
`If one guy falls, the whole team falls... If you are in a situation where you think you might get hurt, don't think about how much it will hurt you, but how much the different possible outcomes will hurt the team... Broken arms can be easily mended; broken morale and trust is much harder... If you succeed, you'll gain the respect of your teammates. If not...'
Yet, the stare that Coach Briar was giving him was different. There was no anger or frustration, though perhaps a bit of disappointment. In fact, if Malcolm head read it correctly, he would go so far as to say that he looked neutral, or even ever so slightly pleased. This was disconcerting.
Once all the players had passed, Malcolm turned to follow them, but Coach Briar stopped that from happening. `No, you are staying here,', he said, `we need to speak'. Coach Briar once against put his outstretched hand against Malcolm's chest and pushed him backwards, this time up against the wall that Malcolm didn't realise was behind him. Placing his hands on the wall on either side of Malcolm's head, he moved his body uncomfortably close and his head just to the side of Malcolm's ear. Very calmly, very matter-of-factly, Coach Briar whispered to him. `So, you've now experienced first-hand what it is like when you think as an individual and not as a team.'. Although they weren't touching, Malcolm could sense Coach Briar's body on his -- he strong chest, the hair on his legs, the smell of his rugby kit. `Honestly, I didn't think you ever would, because you have shown such promise. But, now that it has happened, we simply need to make sure that it doesn't happen again.'. Once again, as so often, Coach Briar deliberately left a short pause before proceeding -- just long enough for the listener to start worrying. Suddenly, he asked `when is your next lecture?'. Malcolm wasn't expecting the question and hesitated. `Answer me now', said Coach Briar calmly. `Not until the new semester in January, Sir'. `And are you planning on going home for Christmas?'. `Yes Sir, I have booked a train next Monday, so in 5 days' time.', confirmed Malcolm. `Good.'.
At that moment, James came out of the tunnel to ask Coach Briar where he wanted the bag of balls to be put. Leaving his hands where they were, he withdrew from Malcolm's ear such that he was staring him in the face. Without looking at James, he replied `Just put them in the corner, and then I need a favour from you.'. `Yes Sir', said James. `Thank you. Can you please go into the changing room, look in Malcolm's bag and bring me his mobile phone'. James paused for a moment. `Sir... are you going to...?', his voice trailed off. `Yes, James. He may have let us down today, but I can see potential in Malcolm here', said Coach Briar, still not moving his eyes from Malcolm's, `I want that potential to finally be exposed'. There was a pause. James spoke first: `Coach, do you want me to...?'. `No James, please just go and collect Malcolm's mobile phone'. James followed Coach Briar's orders. After what felt like an eternity, during which time Coach Briar continued to unflinchingly stare into Malcolm's eyes at close quarters, James brought the mobile phone. Coach Briar thanked James and asked him to return to the changing room and shower himself off.
Now that they were alone again, Coach Briar spoke quieter. `I remember that a close friend of yours from your student dorms came to watch us training. What is his name again?'. Malcolm paused for a moment. He didn't know where this was going and wasn't sure that he liked it. Seeing this, Coach Briar added, `it is to your advantage to answer quickly and correctly. After all, I can verify with some of your teammates whether what you say is true.'. Malcolm knew that it was pointless making something up. `His name is Alex'. `Okay', said Coach Briar, returning back to talk directly into Malcolm's ear, `I would like you to send him a message. So, open up your phone and go to Whatsapp.'. He waited for 5 seconds while Malcolm did what he was told. Standing up straight again, he continued, `Write the following message to Alex: Hey. Hope you are well. We unexpectedly lost the match today and so I'm not feeling too great. Have decided to go back to my folk's place a few days early so won't see you until January. Can you please let the warden know?'. Once he had finished typing, Malcolm knew what this meant. Nobody at university would think it strange if he didn't come back to the dormitories. In fact, nobody would suspect anything until Monday, until he didn't arrive at his parents' place as expected. Once again confirming Malcolm's suspicion that he could read minds, Coach Briar said `Don't worry, you'll be on your train on Monday. Now, send the message'. Coach Briar waited as Malcolm looked at the message on his phone. Did he have a choice? He had let the team down and now he needed to face the consequences. Looking him directly in the face, Coach Briar said `Malcolm, I have 19 players in that changing room in there who have spent hundreds of hours over this semester practicing and playing and adapting their mentality to support the team. Honestly, I thought that you were pretty much there, but it looks like you need a helping hand. I know that what you did today wasn't deliberate, but this element of doubt in such situations needs to be eradicated. From what I have seen, you could be one of the very best players on this team. In fact, from the moment I first clapped eyes on you in the introduction meeting, I knew you had a lot of potential. You are fast, strong and willing to muck in. Frankly, you could be up there with Luke.'. At the mention of his name, Malcolm's face twitched and Coach Briar saw it. Had he deliberately mentioned his name? Did he suspect his feelings for Luke? Coach Briar continued: `I want to help you. I want you to overcome yourself and let out your full potential. I want you to be able to be in a situation like today and know that there is only one right choice, to show your teammates, but more importantly yourself, that you are a man. Men don't do what you did out there today. So, I suggest you send that message and allow your full potential to be opened up. I don't think you'll regret it in the long-run'. Malcolm knew that it was pointless fighting. He had come this far -- why not finish the job. His thumb pressed the send key and the job was done.
`Good. So, I want you to enter that tunnel and walk to my office. Do not enter the changing rooms. You will kneel outside my office with your hands behind your back and your head up staring straight ahead. As you know, you need to walk past my office to leave the stadium and, as such, a number of your teammates may walk past you. If they do, you are not to react. You continue staring straight ahead and wait for me. They may not do so now, but after a while, they will come to realise that your ability to remain stoic under such circumstances makes you the better person. However, I have no intention of trying to stop them from doing or saying what they want to on the way out today. You must learn that actions have consequences. Do you understand everything I have said thus far?'
Malcolm didn't know where this was heading. He wasn't sure that he wanted to know. But before he had time to think, Coach Briar repeated his question, this time slower. `Yes', said Malcolm. To this, Coach Briar stood back, removing his hands from either side of Malcolm's head, entered the tunnel and into the changing rooms to talk with the team. He clearly wasn't forcing Malcolm to do what he said. He could run away. Yet, something drew him in. It would be embarrassing, but then maybe Coach Briar was right. Maybe it is the stronger person who is able to willingly put themselves in such a scenario. With that, Malcolm entered the tunnel and walked round to Coach Briar's office. Thankfully, he didn't meet any of his teammates on the way. He stood outside the office for 30 seconds, thinking about what it was that he might be agreeing to. Ultimately though, he agreed with Coach Briar -- he couldn't let the team down again the way he had done today, and if Coach Briar knew how to fix that, then that would surely be a good thing. Turning around 180 degrees to stand on the spot where he was to kneel, he gave it a final thought. I want to be a man, he thought. And with that, he knelt down, put his arms behind his back, stared straight ahead, and waited.