Rugby!

The road to my first rugby game in Malawi was a random one. I was spending a night at a youth hostel in Lilongwe when I saw a rugby ball lying next to the pool. I hadn’t touched one in almost a year, though not for lack of dreaming. I picked it up, and started teaching a friend how to pass it. Before I knew it I was throwing it around with a couple of South African guys who had been sitting nearby. One of them had been living in Southern Malawi for a few years, and knew of some guys who were trying to set up a club side. That’s how I finally found out about rugby in Malawi.

I got some phone numbers and learned that there was touch rugby every Tuesday in Blantyre, and club rugby practice every Thursday. For weeks I wanted to go, but couldn’t because of timing. Finally I gimmicked my schedule to get me into Blantyre on a Tuesday. Great choice. Touch rugby was awesome. And I learned there was a real game planned for three weeks later.

Initially I thought I wouldn’t play. “What if I got injured in Malawi?” Plus I knew I wasn’t in game shape. However, as the thought of playing rugby lingered in the back of my mind, those concerns quickly passed. After about 5 days I got over it and committed to playing in the game.

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Gratuitous UNB-Era Rugby Photo (photo: George Wilcox)

The day of the game illustrated a fundamental maxim of life in Malawi: ambition = stress. I woke up with only two missions; buy a mouthguard, get to rugby. I had about 5 hours. You’d think it would be easy. You’d be wrong.

I set off intrepidly by minibus to Blantyre’s main shopping mall to see if the big box store, Game (sort of like a Walmart/Futureshop crossover), sold mouthguards. They didn’t. However, I found a small sports store that did sell them – only they were out of men’s sizes. Passing on a junior mouthguard, I followed their directions to another sports store back in town.

By the time I arrived at the sports store it was about 12:30. I went to the door only to learn that it had closed at 12:00, a standard for Saturdays in Malawi. This was shortly followed with the realization that if I had just gone to this sports store in the first place, I’d already have a mouthguard. Instead I had nothing. Frustrating. (Earlier that day I didn’t even know that the store in question existed.)

Without any other options, I paced back and forth on the sidewalk trying to think: what random item can I boil and convert into a mouthguard? As item after item failed my thought-experiment, stress started building. This was compounded by the fact that Colleen Duncan phoned me to say she was locked out on the porch of the house where we were both staying, and I had the key.

Finally, snap decision, I figured the best bet was to rush back to the mall, get a junior mouthguard from the first store I visited, then boil and mold it until it would fit my mouth. The main purpose of a mouthguard is to prevent concussion (from the shock to your skull of your teeth clicking together on a tough hit), so I figured even a small mouthguard would be infinitely better than having nothing.

Back onto a minibus, retracing my doubly-retraced steps from the morning, I set back off for Chichiri Mall. Arriving quickly, I power-walked my way to a quick mouthguard transaction. I then got back onto a bus – my fifth of the morning – and started back towards town.

After about five minutes, we deviated from the main highway and took a parallel road towards town. Buses do this a lot, and normally it’s no big deal. However, today: big mistake. The road we deviated onto had a filling station on it, and a rumour had spread that the station had fuel. Because of Malawi’s on-going fuel shortage, an absolute mob scene had developed, with both lanes of the road taken up by cars trying to get into the station. Our bus ground to a halt, and I was forced to get out and walk the rest of the way to town, quickly leaving my fellow passengers in my dust.

Reaching town I grabbed anooother minibus, and headed back to the house where Colleen was. Letting her in (finally), I then fired up the stove, moulded my mouthguard with boiling water, and threw together a kit bag. Back on a bus again, we eventually reached the field. By this time, however, it almost seemed anticlimactic – but at least I had a lot of stress-adrenaline to invest into the game.

The whole ordeal, illustrated through a novel technique known as "frustration mapping".

Because I was late, I ended up on the bench. Having been a second string player all through university, I’m no stranger to the bench, but it still sucks. I was also an embarrassment to the sport of rugby. With all my kit stowed away in Canada, I arrived at the game in running shoes, basketball shorts, and a t-shirt. Definitely amateur hour. (Luckily one of the guys helped me out with some cleats, or I’d have really been in trouble).

Beyond this, I should note that I was set to be completely outclassed by the guys I was playing with. Not unsurprisingly I was the only Canadian there. Most of the guys were either from South Africa, Zimbabwe, or the UK. A second string Canadian player, in basketball shorts, against competitive guys from some of the best rugby countries in the world. Let the demolition begin.

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Rugby in Malawi. If you look closely you can see me sitting on the sidelines. (Photo: Colleen Duncan)

True to form, when I finally got onto the field (45’ into the 60’ game), I made a complete f’up of my first touch, knocking on a pass at the other team’s 22 – a pass which I could have ran for 10m. Pretty garbage.

Luckily the next touch was better, diving onto a loose ball, again at the 22, and gaining my feet until support got there. From the ensuing ruck my team spun it wide and scored on the far wing. Not nearly as glorious as breaking for 10, but I figure it’s the little things that win rugby games. At least that’s what I tell myself…

From there I didn’t do too much else. One more dive on a loose ball, a couple decent rucks, and one more touch on the last play of the game. We got the important part right though, winning the game 15-14. And we got the even more important part right too, sticking around for beers after.

All in all, pretty fun. As I’m writing I’m back in Canada for the holidays, and I guarantee I will have my rugby kit packed up for the trip back to Malawi. Hopefully this is the start of something.

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5 comments:

  1. I like to watch rugby, but not to play ....

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  2. haha really enjoyed this post. Hopefully more rugby less "bench" in the future. That's reeallly shitty your first action with the ball was knocking it on in their 22...we all do it though. Sounds like you might pick up some good pointers (hopefully) from the other players. Take advantage!:)

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  3. <3!

    Now if only I could find random rugby in PEI. . .

    Make sure to pick up a mouth guard - and maybe even cleats?! - while in Ottawa.

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