The Game is the Thing

A Ruck (source)
A Ruck (source)

For two years in college, I played rugby.

This was a little out of character. Loved ones wondered whether this was some sort of roundabout suicide attempt.

Nevertheless, with the encouragement of my good friend Alex, I went to the first practice of the GMU Rugby Club for the fall 2005 semester. This was the year before GMU’s basketball team went to the Final Four, so the administration was towards the end of a long period of neglecting GMU’s sports in general. Rugby being a less popular sport than most, the field the team had access to was more hard ground and mud than grass.

(Incidentally, the semester after the Final Four run, we returned to discover that our field had become a beautiful green jewel, tended to lovingly and invested in with fresh cash from an administration suddenly enthusiastic about sports)

When we arrived at that first practice, everyone was engaged in a drill called cross over running. You form four lines, facing each other diagonally. The lines that face each other directly run and pop the ball to the person at the head of the one across from them, who then runs and does the same, and so on.

To my unathletic, inexperienced, timid, and highly awkward self, it was a terrifying sight. You had to make sure that you caught the ball, didn’t crash into someone running from the perpendicular line, and then actually got the ball into the hands of the person across from you. And it all happened so fast! I was certain to make a complete fool of myself.

And in practice, as well as the field, I did make a fool of myself, many times. But it was a kind, forgiving group, who encouraged persistence in the face of continual failure, and went out of their way to call out whenever I did something right. In short, I stuck with it, for those last two years of undergrad.

~       ~       ~       ~        ~

One of the amazing, underappreciated facets of human life is our ability to play roles. Spouse, employee, parent, writer, amateur historian—every role involves both responsibilities but also claims made beyond ourselves. Each stands us in a relation with other people playing related roles.

A role is similar to a standpoint. Standpoints are both the basis of what we can see and the reason we’re able to see something we missed when approaching the same thing at some later time.

A novel read as a middle school assignment is approached from an inexperienced, and relatively unread standpoint. Even if the student has recourse to cliff notes or a teacher who plumbs the depths of the novel particularly effectively, their standpoint limits how much they can really grasp what they have read. They probably understand the basics of the plot, and hopefully take something away from it.

The same novel, read again as a college student, discloses more. It does so at minimum because they have read it before. They have also had more experience, and have probably read more books in general. They will likely notice things that they missed the first time, and take away more.

Some students go on to become English professors, reading scores of novels, some of which are undoubtedly read many times over. This professor approaches the novel they read in middle school and undergrad from a very different standpoint. But it was the same book each time.

The story is the thing.

~       ~       ~       ~        ~

A game of rugby has many roles.

The great division is between the burly forwards and the light-footed backs. Unlike American football, defense and offense are not separate groups; the same groups take different formations based on whether they have the ball.

The team on the left is on offense, on the right is defending. (source)
The team on the left is on offense, on the right is defending. (source)

Within forwards and backs there are yet more specific roles.

Being built more like a twig than a rhinoceros, I was a back. Specifically, I was a winger–as the name implies, the role of the two people on the ends of the line. On offense, the goal is to get the ball to the winger so they can (hopefully) run just outside the defending line, and beyond them to the touch. On defense, you have to make sure that the other side doesn’t accomplish just that.

I also played fullback, staying behind everyone to serve (as I did quite poorly) as last line of defense and also the one often called on to kick the ball far away from our touch.

Over two years I brought a shifting standpoint to each role. In the beginning I was simply terrible. By the end I was not good, but better. I could begin to see beyond the little world of my immediate role to the shape of the game itself.

I have a distinct memory of being on defense at the wing while forwards struggled at the ruck—the formation over a tackled ball-carrier and the one who tackled them. I noticed that everyone else was bunching around the ruck, which leaves big holes in our defense—a no-no. I shouted, “if you’re not in the ruck then GET ON YOUR MAN!” Exhilarating, if objectively absurd for a twig to attempt to move rhinos. I could not have even seen the situation clearly enough to understand the problem a year prior, much less found it in myself to say something about it.

The game has many roles. There’s wingers and fullbacks, the fly-half and scrum-half, flankers, props, and–everyone’s favorite—the hooker.

There’s also the coach, or coaches. And of course, there is the audience, which includes the teammates who aren’t presently on the field.

And each of these roles can be played by people coming at them from various standpoints, from a terrified beginner to a seasoned veteran, from a friend in the audience who doesn’t understand the particulars, to a diehard fan of the sport.

But the game is the thing.

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