Thursday, 27 September 2012

Memoirs of a second team hooker

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Americans should not get excited by the title: in Britain the 'hooker' is a position in Rugby Football - the smaller guys in the middle of the 16 person scrum (otherwise consisting of the fourteen largest, heaviest, strongest - generally also hairiest, sweatiest, smelliest and most aggressive - players on the side).

The hookers job is to 'hook' the ball out of the scrum by a strike of his heel, and into the hands of his own scrum half - with the opposition hooker trying to do the opposite.

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Unfortunately, at school I had some kind of natural flair for doing this.

However, I could not do anything else the hooker was supposed to do - especially not the other job of throwing the ball from the touchline down the centre of the 'line out' so that the teams tallest player could leap up and grab it.

I was also relatively slow, weak, had a low pain threshold, and was not very keen about inflicting damage on other people.

I also hated rugby. 

Therefore I ended up in the worst possible place: the second team.

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The second team have only one raison d'etre and that is to be the people who the first team practice on.

They are, by definition, smaller, weaker and more cowardly than the opposition.

And they always lose.

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The second team is essentially 15 unwilling, conscripted human punch bags; perhaps none more so than the second team hooker - who is nearly always the weediest person in the scrum (I certainly was); and almost anything can go on in a scrum, out of sight.

The worst thing that happens to scrums is when they collapse from the middle, but the people at the back keep pushing. This never happened to me, or I probably would not be writing this. Several schoolboys a year are paralysed from the neck down by this kind of accident.

Given that fact, I got off very lightly indeed. I also had the unique status of a moulded mouth guard (because my father was a dentist) or else I would be missing several teeth from being knee-ed in the gob. 

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Rugby is a dreadful sport - rewarding the largest and most vicious and those with the least sensitivity to pain.

But is is especially dreadful at school where the participants are mostly unwilling; and even more especially after puberty hits, and boys become much more capable of hurting each other - but (because the teams are chosen on the basis of age, not maturity) some much earlier than others.

Late puberty is an insurmountable and all-round disadvantage in rugby. 

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When I arrived at high school (from a primary school which played soccer, not rugby) at the age of eleven there were two chaps who had precocious puberty and were solid men.

One played for England schoolboys.

Never believe anyone who says that size does not matter in Rugby. Every single time this chap got the ball he would score a try. He would simply jog from one end of the field to the other, holding the ball up out of reach, with streams of futile schoolboys ricocheting off his trunk-like thighs. 

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The other big lad was a bit different. His general demeanour was similar to Charles Hawtree in Carry on Sergeant.

If someone approached to attempt a tackle when the C.W act-alike was holding the ball, even though all he needed to do was amble to score a try, he would generally shriek in a high pitched voice, and crouch down to protect his gonads.

So size are strength are not everything in rugby - but they certainly help.

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The trouble with being a hooker was that you could neither escape  nor avoid trouble.

Initially, before I foolishly revealed my talent for 'hooking', I had been positioned in the safest position on the field: fly half.

The fly half receives the ball from the scrum half - who protects him from the rigours of the scrum; and the scrum almost always stands between him and anyone who might think of tackling.

Indeed, the fly half's job is to get rid of the ball ASAP - to the 'three quarter' line of wingers and centres - and there was always one of these standing nearby to receive a pass... which - from me - was often a 'hospital pass'

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In rugby you supposedly can only be tackled when you actually have the ball.

A 'hospital pass' is a slow, looping pass which the receiver awaits while some vast and aggressive forward is thundering towards him at twenty mph., head down like an enraged bull, in a trajectory designed to hit the receiver's vulnerable and stationary body like a ton of bricks zero-point-one seconds after he has gathered the descending ball.

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Anyway, due to my slowness, lack of nimbleness, bad passing and a few other factors; I was tried out at full back.

This is a bad position.

A three quarter can almost always avoid having to tackle anybody by means of running too slowly, diving inaccurately, or 'accidentally' being thrown the wrong direction by a body swerve.

That leaves the full back - who typically confronts somebody much bigger, who moving much faster in the opposite direction: and is supposed to stop him by some kind of head on collision.

Ahem.

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The one and only time I played full back on the school team (as a stand in for some injured lad) I found myself in exactly this situation - with all eyes upon me, and none of the obvious tackle avoidance ploys likely to succeed

In the fraction of time available I came-up with an alternative to annihilation.

As the forward steamed upon me I took a swift side-step, and then as he whizzed past I grabbed his shirt and held on tight

A moment later I found myself standing holding the shreds of a ripped shirt; while the bare chested forward did a victory dance over the touchline.

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I saved my skin - but only at the cost of being revealed to the world as a complete and total girl.

Did I mention that was the one-and-only time I played full back?

I guess six years as second team hooker was my just reward. 

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