Thunder At Dawn, Or Prayer Of A Rugby Dad

Fathers want things for their children, and those kids want what they want. Rugby is something else entirely.
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The second-story thunder begins around 5:45am. The shower is next to our bedroom, and Rugby Boy is stumbling into it. I try to will myself back to dreamland, but I fear the thunder. 6:13am.: a herd of buffalo thunders young-manfully to the kitchen. After a few more rumbles of first-floor after-shock, a sonic boom as the front door bangs shut. 6:45. He’s going to be early for practice.

Rugby isn’t my game, and never was. After five years in China, whistle-free, I’m again a wannabe hoops coach. I’m reading, noting, networking and observing high-level practices. I obsess over possibilities and plans, over technical adjustments and teaching points my stormy brain whips up for imaginary teams. Fire in the belly: sometimes it feels more like heartburn. 

6:56: Groan. May as well get up. Maybe I’ll also get some writing done if I get out of here.

7:02 Dressed, heading for a quick bite and bike. The front door bangs open. “Forgot my sports bag. Don’t worry, I’ll catch the next bus. Where’re you going?” Um, thought I’d go to rugby practice.

I wave theatrically as I bike past his bus-stop bench, and arrive at the school’s dewy little practice field at 7:25. He strolls sheepishly in ten minutes later, and the good/bad news for this crusty Dad-coach was that things didn’t get started ‘til nearly 10 minutes after that. I’ll have to have a talk with these coaches. Not.

The game, which I am just getting to know, is tough, fast and fascinating. But the best part of rugby for me is that I care about it a little less wrenchingly than I do other sports. I’ve never played it, never lived and died with a team as I did with the Montreal Expos or Hamilton Tiger-Cats, never studied it the way I did basketball.

Now it’s rugby at dawn. On a little bench just outside the fenced-in pitch, I’m watching my boy, at the same age as I came to basketball, learning how to do that crazy rugby in-bounds thing (what is it called, a lineout?) where teammates lift a player high in the air to snatch the throw-in. This morning he’s also working on the intricacies of the scrum and, the older varsity dudes (mercifully) having gone to the other half to do their own higher-powered scrimmaging, he and the other junior varsity colts are playing this rugged, fast-moving game with less fear of being broken. He is free out there.

He is free, too, of me. He is learning a sport about which his old man definitely doesn’t know better. He digs that part of the deal with a really big shovel, to be the one teaching.


He likes the game. When I get to watch, or hear his bemused summaries of another day of athletic mystery, I get to like him. I couldn’t stop grinning the first September morning when we biked together and he joined the new Rugby Sevens squad at his school. (It’s a faster, less physically dogged modification of the basic 15-man game. I’d have loved to play this game, and that’s about all I think I know.)

Being 14 can be reason enough for aggravation, but the transition to life back in Canada after years in China has had its challenges. He doesn’t share or respond to parental anxiety over cleaning, painting, municipal and other administrivial issues like, say, finding work. Our father-son bridge has been seared a few times, but on that first dewy-bright morning, the scorch-marks hardly showed at all. My heart felt wider.

He had no idea what he was doing. We’d watched, in preparation, over a frantically spooned bowl of granola, 2.5 minutes of highlights from the Canadian national team’s loss to England in the finals of this summer’s Women’s World Cup. No matter – he kept his long and gawky limbs going madly, his face red and quizzical but eager, and his floppy locks bounced and blew.

They did long-stepping forward lunges; he nearly did, too, but his legs shivered and sagged. “Okay, guys, we’re going for a score now,” coach Ruff  – his real name, and its own punchline – barked before a running and passing drill. Over supper that night, he told us this, and grinned and admitted that he didn’t know how to score in rugby. “Why’d you stop? Go, go, go!” shouted Mr. Ruff when he dropped the ball. Doesn’t the play stop if you missed a pass? Thunderhooves wondered. I reminded him that this was a football rule, one of the few he knows, and that rugby not only doesn't have a forward pass but (unlike North American football) rarely stops for anything. Oh. 

In their second practice – of course I biked over again, are you kidding? – Ruff added a little contact, having the lads shoulder into a pad held by a varsity player. I caught a goofy half-grin on the young charger’s reddening face, one that I interpreted as a combination of Aghh, I dunno what I’m doin’! and I think I'm gonna die! and Hey, this is kinda cool!

"Tackling is so hard!" he said at supper. "I can sorta hang on to the guy, but I can't make him go down." After another practice, though, he was excited at a new feat of athleticism. “I was running, and I slipped a bit, and there was this huge puddle on the field, and I was like wearing my new Adidas sweatshirt and I didn’t wanna get it dirty on the first day, so I like threw my hands down and did this sorta semi-cartwheel thingy and landed on my feet again and didn’t get like any mud on my shirt!” To each his own highlight reel.

There are outbursts of loudness, sudden messes, emotional extremity and inexplicable decision-making in our house, part of life with a bright and hasty teenaged boy. In rugby, it’s reversed: he’s the recipient, the object of constant chaos. Especially during the first few workouts, it must’ve felt like life in a tiny random universe: balls came his way without warning, bodies careened and bumped, and the flow of play suddenly reversed or stopped or accelerated in ways utterly surprising to him.

When I went to practice, that thunder-filled morning, it was for the first time in weeks. I saw my son running more fluidly, partly because of improving fitness but also since he has a growing idea of which direction he should be heading. Still, he’s every inch (all 72 of ‘em) a ninth-grader: after practice, he caught me before I biked off, handing me an envelope we’d given him a week before.

“Dad, Mr. Ruff doesn’t want this and you gotta give it to Mr. Grills ‘cause he does the uniform stuff and we have a tournament today and you gotta fill out the permission form so I can play or maybe be a backup I dunno so I won’t be home for supper so yeah talk to Mr. Ruff seeyalater.”

I went looking for the coaches, signed the injury waiver forms, and got the money to the man with the shorts and the tremendous high-and-stripey rugger socks. His cleats are made for soccer, but they're accidentally in something close to school colors. That afternoon, he scored his first try, and made his first competitive tackle. A few days later, I saw him in eager, rawboned action, and then again, at a local rugby complex I hadn’t known my city even had, a day-long series of short, fast matches qualified the team for Ottawa’s first high school JV Rugby 7s championship tournament. I’ll be there, and I’ll make no less money than I do on any given Friday.

And this is life, now. We talk about rucking and dummies over dinner. The laundry load is more and muckier. My thunder-footed Rugby Boy is green as grass-stains, and last week he first had the wind knocked out of him, that brief and nearly archetypal panic. His legs are scored with cleat marks, and he’s pretty proud of them. He has weekend homework to do, and friends to chat with, and early tomorrow, the pre-practice thunder rolls again.

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