Interesting visit to local rugby match yesterday. The friend who invited me understandably had to get there early so told me that someone called Etrine would meet at the ministry gates at 1pm. Predictably I was there at 12.50. Predictably I was still there at 1.25, alone. I had asked how Etrine and I were supposed to recognise each other and was told you'll be the only white man. In fact I recognised Etrine from the fact that he is built like a Samoan prop, able to carry a piano under each arm. He explained "Je suis en retard" which wasn't much of an explanation but I was pleased to see him and we walked the 20 paces to the bus stop.
I say bus stop. What I mean is a general area where about 30-40 people stand in the hope of grabbing the door as the minibus slows down. At that point if you don't have a hand on the door you are not going to get on even if you are built like Etrine because women with babies throw the baby on then the rule is she and whoever else is with her has to be allowed on first. Thanks to me we didn't get on the first bus; that is Etrine did I didn't so he got off. No mistake the second time I was first on and got an almighty thump on the back from Monster Man in, I assume, appreciation. On the bus things became easier. I had not taken one before, although these minibuses are the only public transport, because I didn't know how much they cost, where to get off etc. Cost is easy 300Ar however far you go. So I sat there on a piece of plastic covered wood passed from the back in order to sit between the actual seats. It works well enough. Half an hour later, another thump on the back and we get off. Wait 5 minutes and get on another. Absolutely no idea where we are or where we are going but I have to admit, in uncertain times having 22 stone alongside you is reassuring.
Another 25 minutes, another thump on the back and were off in a busy terminus/ village centre. We start to walk and Etrine hands me the phon. It is my friend who Suggests that as I have paid both our fares to this point I might like to pay for us both to get in 500Ar each - about 20p. As we walked towards the ground everybody is shaking hands with Etrine, calling out etc. He is clearly an attraction. It turns out he was a Madagascar international prop 'back in the day'.
The pitch was interesting too. Not one single blade of grass. No markings except for the edge of the playing surface which was edge with rocks, the touch line. It was a dust bowl, no other description for it. I was constantly rubbing my eyes and players would come to the sideline every now and then to wash out their eyes. There were 3 well presented and very competent officials including one female who I thought all demonstrated good knowledge of the rules and the spirit of the game and also controlled the 500 or so spectators who regularly shrank the touchlines. The spectators especially the females were highly vocal and aggressive. They would heckle opposition players anywhere within range with what I assumed were slights on their masculinity. When one of the opposition fans challenged them they simply pushed him away and set about sledging him to death until the touch judge rescued him and sent him back to his own end. One nice touch was that immediately before kick off both teams formed into their own circle and sang their team song with lung bursting enthusiasm. A less attractive innovation, to me but not to them was that at half ALL of the supporters except me went on to the pitch and listened to the team talk in an extended huddle on the halfway line. Didn't like that.
The rugby, it has to be said, was rubbish. Year 8 at a rugby school would have more of an idea. They were very enthusiastic, very committed headless chickens and my continuous stream of advice to move up in a line, or not to kick the ball away or to maintain possession was completely ignored. How can you expect to play successful rugby if you don't listen to sensible advice screamed from pitchside in a foreign language? We, Sabotny Hemanada were the stronger side. We won just about every scrum driving the opposition back metres at every put in. But we lost. Largely because on guy would have a good plan that he hadn't shared with anyone else on the team and would make a break an end up giving away a penalty for not releasing the ball. Handling was poor, all the running lines predictable and handling not even basic. That said the ball was almost round and bounced high and wide on the rock hard dust.
That was how the opposition scored their try. A poor pass a hack though and a bounce about 10 foot in the air that fell into their full back's hands. Our try was amusing. At last they listened to my screeched advice and kept the ball in hand. Number 8 pick up and drive became a 30 man maul which caused the posts to sway so severely I thought they were going to collapse. Somehow, I assume, the ball was grounded and we were awarded the try. The conversion gave us a one point lead with 3 minutes to go. We knocked on and picked up from the restart to give them a penalty in front of the posts which they gratefully converted for an undeserved two point win.
Differences: the pitch; only one ball available so frequent stoppages while it was collected from the houses behind the goal posts; don't quite know what shape the ball was, sort of overinflated rugby-ish shaped but with points the size of Etrine's fist, flexible sidelines marked in stones; no beer available; as substituted you gave your shirt to the guy taking your place; no real difference in the body shape of forwards and backs: all had a vaguely athletic build but no designed props etc. No talking or thinking, no team plan, nothing related to any sort of coaching or strategy at all.
Similarities: passion, commitment, no thought at all of self-preservation; obvious disappointment at defeat but crowd good-natured after despite tendency to threat of violence throughout; despite the lack of a plan they were playing for each other but enthusiasm took the place of co-operation. No thuggery on the pitch; some appreciation of the opposition and officials after the game.
Footnote: A Dutch film crew recorded the match. Watch out for the game as the 3rd world rugby slot on Total Rugby. I was constantly asked by my friend what I thought of his team and I think he found my answers disappointingly honest. Nevertheless I was asked to pick their man of the man - easy number 7, the only one with a brain and a ferocious tackle, and asked if I would attend their training session next Sunday to talk about this new idea of planning set moves and having a game plan. We will see.
PS I have put a photo into the text of this blog. I wonder if it will be included.