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Matt Williams: A coffee with a mate made me realise how thankful I am for rugby

Despite everything going on in the world, life is still a beautiful thing to be savoured

Christmas Day always started with the same ritual and it was not unwrapping gifts with the family while sitting around a Christmas tree. That had to wait.

Unlike Ireland, Christmas in Australia falls at the height of summer, in the middle of rugby’s off season.

As a boy and young man, on every Australian summer Christmas morning, before the heat and humidity began to build into the red zone, I undertook a festive season training session. Over the years it became as compulsory on Christmas Day as the turkey, gravy and baked potatoes.

The motivation for the event lay wrapped in the twisted psychology of the great NFL coach Vince Lombardi, who famously said, “when you are not practicing, someone somewhere is. And when they meet you, they will win.”

My friend reminded me that the reason we trained on Christmas mornings was because we looked ahead to the upcoming year with a positive mindset

Old fashioned Catholic guilt, laced with teenage testosterone and unhealthy levels of competitiveness, sprinkled on top of the not yet fully functional male adolescent brain, formed in me the misguided belief that no one else would be stupid enough to go out under a blazing Australian sun and train on Christmas morning.

The hope was that the Noël session would assure superiority in the upcoming season over the great unwashed and less dedicated who were not training on December 25th.

Many years later I mentioned my obsessive Christmas training ritual to a teammate, believing my single minded dedication would impress the socks off him. He gave me a blank stare and informed me that he always trained on Christmas morning.

I was crestfallen. Surely I was the only rugby “nerd and weirdo” stupid enough to go out running and kicking a ball around in the heat of Christmas morning? I then asked around our circle of rugby friends and sadly discovered that every one of them was a fellow “nutter” who left their family members shaking their heads in disbelief on Christmas morning as they trotted out for a run and kick.

Commonplace

I was appalled that their obsession was as far out of whack as my own. Not only were my Christmas morning training sessions not unique, but they were also sadly commonplace.

After successfully passing a swathe of Covid tests and obtaining more intergovernmental documentation than the builder of a nuclear reactor, last week the Australian government relented and allowed me to cross the border to travel back to Sydney. After being locked out for 18 months, finally I’m home to spend a few brief days over Christmas to visit some greatly missed family and friends.

The other day I sat down over a cup of coffee with one of my now ancient brother Christmas morning training nerds. He shared some of his wisdom and inspired me. I thought it might do the same for you.

He told me that despite the real horrors of the Covid pandemic, soaring house prices, self-isolation and inflation, life was still a beautiful thing to be savoured, tasted and gulped down.

It is still great to be alive.

A walk along Sydney's beautiful harbour shoreline will be all I require

He reminded me that the reason we trained on Christmas mornings was because we looked ahead to the upcoming year with a positive mindset. The training was not a sacrifice of time but an act of hope. Rugby is like life, there are no guarantees of success at the beginning of every year.

Hard work, dedication and a willingness to give your best for your teammates remain the intangible qualities that each player had to invest in. An investment that has no iron-clad promise of offering any return. We trained because we believed, had faith and had a go.

My old mate observed that in the pandemic far too many people have their mindset geared to the negative. The problems the world is facing seem so daunting many are living in fear and lack hope.

He gave the example of Covid being a horrible curse to society, but the tireless dedication of our medical frontline workers is a sustained act of inspiration that most of us wrongly take for granted. A great problem has created great humanity.

While I was complaining about how Covid had created difficulties for me with international travel and had disrupted my life, he reminded me that I should be grateful for everything the game of rugby has given me. Of course he is correct. I owe the game, it owes me nothing.

He spoke of finding gratitude for the everyday things and accepting that difficulties are a natural part of every person’s life. It is how we find ways to overcome the “curve balls” that life throws at us that makes life worth living. “If you’re still above ground, that’s a good thing. You still have a mission,” he observed.

As Ryan Holiday, the stoic philosopher reminds us, “the obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget that every obstacle is our opportunity to improve our condition.”

Tough and beautiful

My friend also reminded me that it was not just on one Christmas morning that we trained. It was on every Christmas. As the American journalist Jacob Riis tells us, “when nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rocks, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow, it will split in two. I know it’s not the last blow that did it, but all the ones that had gone before.”

He reminded me that rugby had taught us perseverance, persistence, gratitude and the acceptance that life is both tough and beautiful because of the people we meet on the journey.

Tomorrow morning, with my attitude now suitably adjusted by my old mate and before any gifts are exchanged around the family Christmas tree, I will slip out for a session that will be far more gentle than the old days. A walk along Sydney’s beautiful harbour shoreline will be all I require.

I will try to see the goodness in the people around me. I will try to give thanks for life’s challenges and remind myself that quitting never was and never will be an option.

For an overly competitive, obsessive and aging former second rower, my mate sure is a wise man.

Have a great Christmas Day.