“You’ve got to get your first tackle in early, even if it’s late.” – Ray Graved
I was a senior at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and had been playing my heart out on the rugby pitch for 4 years. Two buddies and I had dreams of grandeur, to move to the rugby mother land, New Zealand, to live, love, play for a season or more.
Then we decided not to.
There wasn’t any specific reason not to go, as I recall. The plans just sort of fizzled. The dream did not.
I’m still friends with those two guys, great friends, although our lives are now separated by 1000’s of miles and completely different paths.
A few weeks ago, I called one of them from a beach in that far away land, and the first thing he said to me was, “You finally made it..”
Rugby has been a corner stone of my life since discovering it my first year at UNCW nearly 15 years ago..
I recall having a conversation about football with a fellow that I knew from a neighboring high school my very first day at Wilmington. When our chit-chat subsided, a french fellow beside me asked, “Why don’t you play rugby?”, in sort of a stuffy, heavy, sweaty french kind of way.
That french guy and I would also become great friends, like so many more guys that I would meet on the pitch. Renan Guillou and I would live together all through college and we still keep in touch, even though I’m in Los Angeles and he’s in Panama.
Rugby has been a determining factor in where I’ve lived, traveled, and worked. It’s provided an incredible network, personal and professional. It’s opened the door to a relationship with more than one maiden and it’s closed it with a handful more.
I never understood it when I heard old guys say it when I started, “Once a rugger. Always a rugger. You’ll never really be done. Well, not until you’re dead..but even then..”
I fully understand it now.
These days, I feel more often than not, that my body is ready to call it a day. My schedule no longer allows for all of the training that is required to play at the level my heart desires. I’ve become interested in other sports and activities.
Yet, rugby remains.
I get energized when I smell the grass. I get excited to talk about footy with anyone. I get pissed off when I see another bloak play like a jerk on the pitch, especially when they play my position, by running like a sissy or missing a tackle or dropping a pass. I suppose it stems from jealously that I’m not out there, but who knows.
I simply love the game. Everything about it.
Rugby is and will always be in my blood.
The pinnacle of rugby competition is of course the World Cup. The most holy of rugby lands is of course New Zealand.
My neighbor, dear friend, fellow rugger , and owner of the Rugby Travel Company and I went sailing a couple years ago. We were 2 or 8 beers into an epic night when he said that we should put together a tour to New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup.
Sure! It’ll be legendary! Hell Yes!!
The following morning we confirmed our drunken plan and the stage was set.
I would find the guys to make the trek and he would plan all the travel. We would connect with teams in both New Zealand and Australia to play with and join at the pub. Excursions would be booked.
Fast forward to September 2011
In the end 10 men would meet in Los Angeles, coming from all over the United States, to embark on the trip of a life time. All but two, whom we elected an honorary alum, graduated from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, our graduation dates spanning 14 years. We all work in different fields, from construction to law to software to nuclear reactor auditing..one guy might even by a secret agent man, but he’d have to kill us if he told us.
Our trip went went on like this..
Saturday 10th – Most of the crew arrive in Los Angeles. I, Aaron, put a few guys up and a few stayed on Simon’s sail boat in Marina del Rey.
Sunday 11th – Play touch rugby with the Beack Boks (primarily a South African group) and members of Santa Monica RFC on the beach in Santa Monica
Monday 12th – Depart Los Angeles
Tuesday 13th – Arrive in Auckland, NZ
Wednesday 14th – Pick up camper vans –> Travel to Rotarua and sulfur lake
Thursday 15th – Attend Russia vs. USA @ Stadium Taranaki, New Plymouth
Friday 16th – Travel to Helensville/Auckland. Stopped to tour Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Stopped to watch New Zealand v Japan at Stadium Waikato in Hamilton. Meet with Helensville RFC (Camp on Helensville Rugby Club Grounds ~ approximately 30 mins from Auckland)
Saturday 17th – Social game with Helensville RFC @1pm. The Helensville Youth Cutural Organization performed a traditional Maori dance and concert (amazing!). Our host family put a lamb on the spit and we watched rugby for the afternoon – Argentina v Romania @ 3pm, South Africa v Fiji @ 5pm, Australia v Ireland @ 8pm.
Sunday 18th – Clayton and Jaddick went deer hunting and the rest of the crew went Contiki fishing on the north eastern shore. Went to a thermal spring that had been turned in a water park..waterslide and all :)
Monday 19th – Return camper vans. Stay in hotel.
Tuesday 20th – Depart Auckland –> Fly to Sydney, Australia (Stay in Hotel)
Wednesday 21st – Big E, Clayton, Taylor and I visited the Blue Mountains (amazing). Others in the crew visited the Sydney Zoo, Opera House, Manly Beach, Bondi Beach…
Thursday 22nd – Tour Sydney
Friday 23rd – Played social game v Petersham Rugby club, Australia’s 2nd oldest club at Sydney University. Watch USA vs. Australia live on big screen.
Saturday 24th – Tour Sydney
Sunday 25th – Depart Sydney –> Fly to Los Angeles, CA
Was I tired of spooning dudes in camper vans? Yes. Did I nearly kill myself and others driving on the wrong side of the road? Yes. Did I go bat-shit crazy on the 14 hours flight half way around the world? Absolutely.
Would I do it all over again? Damn right!
It was unbelievable!
I’ll spare you..and those involved, to preserve innocence, the intimate details of the journey, as I am a firm believer that those moments belong only to those that experienced them.
New Zealand is a land lost by time. It felt as though a brontosaurus was going to pop out at any moment. If you’ve ever been to the grand canyon, you know the feeling of awe by the shear scope of it all. Think about that and then cover everything with grass. Every thing was so green! Farms and fields everywhere. 15 minutes outside the city and it was as beautiful and peaceful a place as you have ever been. Ever.
And that was just the land.
The people were even better!
Maybe its because it was so damned far away from anything. Maybe it was because we were rugby players. Whatever it was, every person we had the opportunity to meet was so genuinely warm and friendly, it was down right humbling.
They fed us and big belly roll laughed with us. They shared their homes and culture with us. They played great footy and drank cold beer with our entire group.
To think we did it all in the name of rugby!
To watch my country beat the Russians. AWESOME! To see the All Blacks get their Haka on, LIVE. AWESOME! To win against the bookies by a half point spread against Australia, in Sydney. AWESOME! To earn Man of the Match with two tries and solid tackling against the local side just outside Auckland. AWESOME! To laugh and trade jerseys and sing songs with the local host clubs. AWESOME!
Rugby is the great equalizer!
I speak for the entire group, the trip was incredible and I will cherish it for the rest of my life.
Many thanks to Simon Jones and Julie Johnson of Azzurro Travel and The Rugby Travel Company.
Cheers again to the good boys of Helensville RFC and Petersham RFC, with extra special gratitude to Andy Cummings and Adam Dunn.
Lest not forget all of the new friends we found across the pond, til soon, take good care.
“In our country, true teams rarely exist . . . social barriers and personal ambitions have reduced athletes to dissolute cliques or individuals thrown together for mutual profit . . . Yet these rugby players. with their muddied, cracked bodies, are struggling to hold onto a sense of humanity that we in America have lost and are unlikely to regain. The game may only be to move a ball forward on a dirt field, but the task can be accomplished with an unshackled joy and its memories will be a permanent delight. The women and men who play on that rugby field are more alive than too many of us will ever be. The foolish emptiness we think we perceive in their existence is only our own.” – Victor Cahn