Learning to play rugby – tackle and scrum

Fragment of a photo by Doug Menuez

Time for me to continue this section on Learner Tales started out with a text in French about reading Jane Eyre at 13.1 The articles in this sectionare part of a project about giving visibility to the routes people take in order to learn. We’re all human, but in our own way. It is this difference which makes for some unusual learning and which creates our Learner Tales. In working on the posts in this section I intend to meet different people and and get them talking about learning their way. To kick off the English side to the series, here’s something from me about rugby.

Testimony

Yesterday I had my first birthday since my mother passed away in January. This morning I found a birthday card she sent me years ago with a picture of a rugby match seen from a player’s point of view. Along with the greeting, she wrote a question.

Original text by Sheila Kenny née McCarthy

And as we are currently in the throes of the Rugby World Cup 2023, I think this is probably an appropriate time to share these two texts about learning to play rugby. Bringing Down The Pine and Scrum Crush are my answers to Mum’s question.

Fragment of a photo by Doug Menuez

Bringing Down The Pine

Mr Davies showed us the basic principle

Of what would become the rugby tackle,

Before our very eyes, without a sound,

By bringing a running giant to the ground.

The key was courage, whatever our size,

He said, for each team’s Goliath had eyes

Set on getting the ball across our line.

The tackle was there to fell swoop the pine.

Did we have any questions? But then who

Could muster even one? As we all knew,

He who so much as even dared to ask

Would be the next tackler to field the axe.

Scrum Crush

Breathing is a luxury

Which I remember vaguely

From when bodies were against.

Now they have all collapsed

And the unmoving names dropped

Onto me from the matchlist.

Both my head and the other hooker’s

Blink at the props, our overlookers,

All caught stuck here in the same scrum crush.

Teeth grind and ribs groan as we nurture

Dreams of second row furniture

Being moved, restored to the rush.

Awful view from this front row seat.

But I tell myself to be strong,

That it’s here I really belong

Fragment of a photo by Doug Menuez

Comments

In Bringing Down The Pine I was 11 or 12 and had just started at secondary school in Harlow. Mr Davies, our sports teacher, who also played scrum half for London Welsh in the late 1960s, introduced us to the rugby tackle by effortlessly bringing down Tomas Brown, the biggest boy in the class, who he asked to run at him at full speed. Sadly, Mr Davies left St Mark’s the following year when he was appointed at The Campion School where he took school rugby to new heights. But back on that grey autumn afternoon in 1968, after bringing Tom down with such ease, he told us not to be impressed. He was much smaller than Tom, but John Davies said he was able to make up for that difference because he knew how to tackle. This was what we were to learn.

And we did learn, because he taught us how to do it without being afraid. When faced with a hefty opponent – or running after one, because there was a big lad to chase in every team that nobody wanted to tackle – all you needed to say to yourself was that he was coming down. Fear was still there, but we tamed it with anticipation : arms around, head to the side, and snap his balance to bring him tumbling down. This technique has come in useful when dealing with unwieldy individuals who come charging in all sorts of situations. Sometimes, you can’t let someone get away or get past you and, even when it hurts, you have to remember what you know and stop them. At other times you can let them get away. There’ll be other days and other matches. The hard part now is knowing how to tell the difference.

Scrum Crush is an impression of how it felt to be a hooker when the scrum collapsed. I was older, maybe 14 or 15. In rugby, the hooker wears number 2 and scrums down in the middle of the front row. You have to be the first one in position to form the scrum by raising your arms for the props to bind on either side. I played prop for a while but I preferred hooker. I liked the crunch as the scrum packed down. Then there was that secret hand signal to our scrum half on when to deliver the ball so I could be first to hook it back into our pack.

Of course, in a scrum, both packs pushed against each other at the same time. I still remember the pressure of all those players coming from in front and from behind, so something had to give. Inevitably, the ball would soon be out and off in play. Then the two packs would sometimes crumble in on one another while the ball was whipping out across the field. When that happened, you were stuck. Time passed excruciatingly slowly, but there was nothing you could do until the people on top of you moved. It was like being caught under the debris after a minor earthquake. Sometimes it could be hard to breathe. But, even under the heap of bodies, I told myself freedom would come, especially if we had won the ball and it was out there moving across the field. Although we did learn how not to collapse every time, it was also a tactic which packs used to slow down their opponents in the pile of bodies, so it was unpredictable. When it happened, it happened. You were stuck. The only strategy I found to help the waiting was persuading myself into thinking that it wouldn’t last long and, in any case, if this was rugby and I was a hooker, this was where I had to be. It’s still a mindset I use in situations of adversity, resisting under pressure, trying to understand what has happened, visualising the way out and finally taking it. And I believe the idea first came to me face down in the English mud.

Photo credits

I do not own the copyright to the photo on the birthday card my mother sent me, but I own the original Abacus birthday card published by Graphite Editions. I took a picture of the card and then cut it into fragments from the original to illustrate this post. But credit where credit is due : the original was taken by Doug Menuez. He has a brilliant website of his work which you can visit here.

  1. The text about reading Jane Eyre at 13 has since become available in English here. ↩︎

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1 Comment

  1. Gerry Kenny

    How about you? Any memories to share?

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