AN IRISHMAN'S DIARY
THE recent affair in Paris, which ended in a narrow vice tory for the Gauls, reminds me of my own brief career as skipper of the Under 13 B team.
The opposition were playing their first ever game of rugby. This might indicate they were ripe for plucking. Not so. For the very good reason that the appointed referee had either been nobbled or was too awed by the prospect ahead. He never showed up, with the result that the coach of the novice team reached for the referee shirt and trotted out with the whistle between his dentures.
We should have guessed, oh we should have guessed, that something was afoot when for the kick off their fullback trotted the length of the pitch and! stood next to our fullback. Their outhalf kicked the ball into our 25, into the waiting arms of his team mate.
We stood blinking, waiting for the referee to indicate some disapproval of this sort of antic. Nothing doing. The fullback rounded our Lot's wife of a fullback and neatly scored between the posts, without one of our crowd touching the ball. Probyn, the largest man on our team, stood there, his mouth open.
Probyn was a brute who, at the age of 12, was six feet tall, had body hair I have only seen on a Tasmanian Devil, and pelvic appendages which makes Linford Christie seem like Tinkerbell. If we'd had showers before the game rather than after, the opposition would have cried off before the kickoff.
Excellent try, shrieked our impartial referee. Excellent!
After a few meaningful stares from Probyn, as captain I ventured to suggest to the referee that the procedure the home team had employed to score a try ventured somewhat from the spirit and the letter of the rule book.
The referee took my name. Probyn had to be hauled back from hitting him. The referee, a small mouse of a man, then contented himself with allowing the home team take six attempts at converting the try. After the last attempt, Probyn's eyes flickering like a lizard's, the referee said to the goal kicker, who had just put a grubber along the ground before it stuck in the mud a yard short of the posts, oh well done, we'll give them that one, eh, visitors?
Three forwards, the full back and both wingers sat on Probyn, and were bounced up and down as if they were riding a brace of Aberdeen Angusses. We all trotted back for the kick off. Our fullback, who had retrieved the ball from the mud, threw the ball to our out half.
"Sorry," said the ref, "home team kick off."
But, but, but ref, I expostulated with all the virtuous indignation that only a wronged 12 year old can manage, they scored, therefore we kick off. What's your name? piped the referee.
Probyn, I replied, vanishing into the anonymity of the pack. We knew now that we had to mark the players they deployed in our 25 for their kick off. Sure enough, the ball was kicked to their fullback, he caught it and Probyn caught him.
There was a strangulated yelp, and the fullback disappeared. A loose scrum, as it was called, ensued. Had Probyn had an interest in the ball be would assuredly have won it, but he had a fullback upon whom he was profoundly anxious to impress the rules of the game. No doubt that was the reason why the home team won the loose scrum.
I was scrum half and crawled round the side, as in those days you could. What followed impressed itself on my memory forever; sometimes I start awake and with incredulity recall what happened.
The ball was coming out slowly and I was sure I was going to nobble my opponent, a sturdy young tyke with spots and just seconds to live; when the referee grabbed me and held me.
What? I say starting upright even now in ray little bed. Did that really happen?
Yes it did. Yes it did. The referee physically grasped me while the ball came out to the scrum half, who stood to his full height, held the ball over his shoulder, and sent a great forward pass right over our try line where the opposing outhalf was waiting, gleefully, to receive and score.
That was bad enough; but the unseemly merry making which followed reminded one of the worst excesses of the maypole, with the referee skipping around with the opposition, lost to all decency. The dumbstruck silence of Probyn was almost heartbreaking.
We give you the conversion, I growled, if you cede us the kickoff. (I was shrewdly aware that unless we got the ball somehow or other, it was unlikely victory would come our way.) Of course, our habits were so ingrained that we failed to position our players downfield, there to loft the ball to; so in no time at all, the other crowd won the ball but knocked it on.
Intrepid little mouse
Curiously, this referee knew the knock on rules, and blew for a scrum. This'll be foogin interestin', said Probyn, and by God he was right. I put the ball in and bless my soul if that intrepid little mouse of a referee did not stick his arm into the scrum, right under Probyn's disbelieving nose, and scoop it back to his forwards, who, needless to say, succeeded in heeling it; and needless to say, l did not even try to interfere with the scrumhalf, who played basketball with his outhalf, until felled off the ball by a speechless Probyn. "Nice tackle," warbled the referee.
We shook our heads. The man knew nothing. Probyn spent the rest of the match stalking and throttling the enemy. But it was too late. We were doomed.
It has recently struck me though. That referee might admittedly today be a little long in the tooth - yet could he not be persuaded to referee Ireland's match, perhaps under the illusion he were its coach also? Perhaps that way we might just beat the Tibetan Girls' Third XV; though on second thoughts.