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FINAL DECISIONS

As I write, I do not know if you received my last blog, the main content of which dealt with 'resting' players in modern rugby. 

I argued, for example, that the Lions management should not rest their good players for the trip to Argentina to play the Jaguares. The previous week, the Bulls had done just that and lost. But I assume the various arguments were carefully analysed and discussed: 'the boys need a rest', ' some of them have also played test rugby', 'there's a limit to how much they can take, boet,' 'the other okes in the squad need a chance and this is the ideal opportunity, I mean we've got depth of talent,' 'we'll win man! It’s only the Jags!'

Well, what I feared would happen, did happen. The Lions 'reserve' oufit’ was trounced. They were simply outplayed in every department. Take the scrums, where the Lions were routinely shoved off the ball. Basic skills were erratic and the Jaguares took every opportunity. I fear, too, the home side were miffed at a B team being sent over. That sort of humiliation and patronising attitude is a powerful incentive to play above your best and win convincingly. Just what the Jaguares did.

Now, was part of the pre-match discussion about who we would have to play in the knock-out stages? Surely. I mean the Lions knew if they beat the Argentinian side, they would play the erratic but improving Sharks. If they lost, they would have to - and now have to - face the might of the Crusaders. So reality struck on Saturday last and now the Lions must put together a squad who can defeat the Crusaders. It's been done before, but this time it's crunch time.

Quite frankly, I must tell you I got sick and tired of watching lopsided rugby matches where one team was far too strong to lose. It became boring. So forgive me if I give no scores in this message; they're all in the papers and on the net.

I'm retreating into the far distant world of club rugby in Rhodesia. My memory insists I relate the story of one way in which a match can be won.

Gwelo Sports Club sent its first team through to Que Que to take on their side in a local derby. The sides were judged to be fairly even in talent. It was a crucial match in terms of the Midlands' Cup. The Gwelo manager, long past his playing days, was one George Bester. He was then, in his early fifties and in his day had played rugby with great success as a tearaway flanker. At lunch, George took full advantage of the famed Que Que hospitality and drank at least four ice-cold lagers. 

Remember these were the days when 'men were men': you could take out a jumper's legs in the lineout and dump him to the ground on his head, you could be tackled in the air taking a high ball and be severely injured, you could be, and often were, routinely tackled around the neck, you could be punched at hooker by some opposing lock who, feeling bored, would whisper 'maak oop - those dreaded words -  and swing his fist through the gap to smash a nose, late-tackling was an art especially highly regarded then - I mean it meant you could tackle the bastard easily while he was off-balance and without the ball and there were no 'assistant referees. Believe it or not, you had to put the ball in 'straight' at the scrums! You see there was something called 'foot-up'. To enlighten younger readers, with the ball put in straight, both hookers had a chance to win it, a fair contest. If one hooker went for the ball early, he was penalised for the above-mentioned error. (But, I ask sadly, what young  players today really know what a hooker is? In reality, there are three front rows and the ball is put in crooked without sanction.

So back to Gwelo vs Que Que in the fifties of the 20th century. While changing into their long-sleeved jerseys and ensuring their jockstraps were well-adjusted for the fray - first things first - the Gwelo team realised they had left their hooker behind. There was much verbal acrimony and fierce accusations were flung in all directions, along the lines of 'I made sure you were fetching him,' 'No, I didn't say I'd bring him, you did.’ Tempers were roused, team spirit ebbed. Leadership was needed.

The captain stepped forward and said, 'There's nothing for it. George will have to play.'The manager, now nowhere near his sober best protested feebly. But he had no choice. Duty called. Someone found a jersey which could not quite cover his boep and his socks fell about his ankles. A pair of ill-fitting boots would have to suffice. Some inner spirit of past glory revived his fighting days of yesteryear and he said, "Chaps, I'll give it a go". His attitude was nothing less than Kiplingesque. 

So the match began and scores moved to and fro. As every scrum was ordered, the players waited for George. He managed to hold on to his props but was, towards the end, battling to lift his leg to hook. The beers were gaining on him. He was heard to mumble once or twice, "Now, I know what the Pioneers had to put up with at Shangani." His team-mates were models of support and encouraged him at every opportunity. But George knew something new was required. He had to come up with a ploy which just might work.

With Que-Que ahead by two points as the final scrum was called, George said to his scrumhalf, "Look, put the bloody thing in. I'll think of something.” The scrumhalf put the ball in. George puked on it. Que-Que hooked the ball. Their scrumhalf, a local amateur actor of some repute, reached for the ball, saw, with horror, the vomit and, hands hastily raised, said, "Sis!” The Gwelo scrumhalf said quickly, "'Sis' be buggered!", scooped up the slimy ball and fell over the line for the winning score.

I'm going trout-fishing with some friends next week and hope it will clear my head of pedestrian rugby. I'll be ready to watch matches with greater enthusiasm the following weekend.

Here's to the glories of the odd-shaped ball.

Neil Jardine

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