Forty four years old today and, after a physical battering yesterday, I'm feeling every single last one of them.
As predicted yesterday afternoon was gloriously warm, ideal weather for standing on the sidelines with a beer - not so ideal, however, for 80 minutes' (give or take) slog on a rugby field. I can honestly say that I didn't stop sweating until late into the evening - showering made absolutely no difference.
As ever our team assembled in the traditional Chesham Vets way. I arrived at High Wycombe Rugby Club to find two other players there, already changed and, as I nervously began getting my kit on I received a call from our skipper for the day wondering where I was - he was waiting for me back at Chesham. The referee then arrived with a sheet of A4 paper summarising the laws he'd be applying which we (and he, as it later transpired) dutifully ignored.
Whereas the opposition were out warming up en masse, our boys eventually began to arrive in dribs and drabs, including a few who had turned up late at Chesham thinking we had a home game. The referee was getting visibly irritated as he counted 13 players and then 11 (as 2 had wandered off back to the clubhouse for a 'comfort break'). But, by not very long after the due kick off time, we'd managed to assemble 16 bodies and were ready (well, readyish) to go.
The game started and it soon became obvious that (a) it was bloody hot; (b) I had very little energy; and (c) we were in for a tough time at the scrum.
The latter point was illustrated when, at a scrum on our line after about 5 minutes, we hurtled backwards with such velocity that the ball squirted out of the back for their slightly unbelieving flanker to flop on it for their first try - 0-5. As blindside flanker rather than number 8 I hereby absolve myself of any responsibility for the score.
About the same time Rick, our second row, limped off (afterwards he was reminded that it was possibly the best 5 minutes he'd ever played, of course) so our replacement, Ben, made an early appearance.
However, rather than capitulate we responded with some determination and dominated territory and possession for the rest of the half, surprising the opposition, the ref and, mostly, ourselves. Very few clear cut try-scoring chances were created but we scrapped and competed at the breakdown and hung on grimly in the set piece. How I survived through to half time I'll never know as my lungs were burning and my legs simply not working but, by judicious selection in when and where I ran, I managed to somehow ease myself through.
Still 5 points down at half time we came out strongly in the second half, pressuring the oppo's half backs into mistakes and camping in their 22. It soon paid off. A quick tapped penalty (one of the few we were awarded) by scrum half Steve close to their line followed by quick ball from the ruck saw inside centre Phil crash over to the left of the posts for the equalising try. A fluffed conversion attempt, however, left the scores even at 5-5.
This seemed to wake the Wycombe lads up and, to be fair, they put us under pressure for the rest of the half, a half punctuated by lengthy (but nevertheless welcome) stoppages in play as various players from both sides went down injured or simply wilted in the heat. One such injury removed Harvey, another of our locks, from the fray and resulted in me moving across to number 8, where my first task was to secure ball from a rapidly retreating scrum close to our line. Eventually the pressure told, a series of strength-sapping scrums and pick and drives from a couple of their bigger forwards saw them crash over from short range to secure a 10-5 lead.
And that, it seemed, was that as we struggled to get out of our half until, late in the game, we ran a kick back from inside our 22. I was admiring the ambition of it all until I realised that play was heading my way and, as our fullback Tim burst across half way I, miraculously and running on empty, appeared on his shoulder to take the pass. More miraculously, with the opposing fullback lining me up, I threw a dummy. Even more miraculously, he bought it and I found myself in the clear with about 40 metres to go (NB - this distance will get longer the more I tell this story). The first 15 metres were covered with no difficulty and I looked over my shoulder to see their fullback giving chase and our fly half, Geoff, pointing and shouting "Posts!" The next 15 metres, however, were less impressively covered and, with 10 metres to go I was running in treacle.
With the smell of the white line in my nostrils I was hauled down an agonising 2 metres short and, my attempt to offload having failed, the ref compounded my agony by blowing the final whistle. So near and yet...
Of course, everyone was very kind afterwards - no one mentioned that my lack of speed and failure to pass had cost us the game. Not much they didn't and apparently there were several players all up in support and calling for the ball when I made the break - although funnily enough, when I looked round for support, I recall them all being rather conspicuous by their absence.
Ah, well - the story would be far less interesting if I'd actually scored and helped secure my first victory since returning to the game.
Glorious failure. That's what it's all about. Happy Birthday to me...