Last Saturday saw me at the last place I thought I'd ever find myself: a rugby match! I'd been convinced by a South African male that this experience was quintessential to my time on earth, and decided to give it a try.
The evening started with drinks at a nearby bar. The same authority on the matter believed that being slightly drunk would significantly raise the enjoyment factor of the game. He recommended a Tequila Sunrise to give me the stamina to get through the night feeling a pleasant buzz. We sat facing the TV, showing another rugby match in process, and I sipped from the huge cocktail glass while he drank his beer.ï¿½ He pointed at the screen, telling me the players were only allowed to pass the ball backward, and urging me to drink up as we had little time left before heading to the game.ï¿½
We began our walk to the stadium, joining various groups of people heading in the same direction. The sense of anticipation as we moved steadily towards the venue excited me; it was a new experience for me to be part of the South African sports scene. I felt nostalgic at the thought ofï¿½ watching a home team play on home soil instead of defiantly cheering alone for the South African Olympic participants in front of the TV in Vancouver.ï¿½
The stadium was so big that we had to ask for directions to find our seats.ï¿½ After hiking up the steps, we sat down and waited for the game to start.ï¿½ My image of rugby had always been guys constantly bashing into each other and getting hurt. I really couldn't see why people would want to sign up for that, much less watch. I hadn't realized that playing the game actually involved skill. I looked down at the field: the two teams were warming up on either side. It was the Cape Town Stormers' first game since returning from their overseas tour. Today they were playing the New Zealand Chiefs. I knew nothing about either team, but I was clear who I was supporting.ï¿½
I looked around at the stadium slowly filling up and smiled, spotting young and old of all backgrounds.ï¿½ Vendors walked through the stands holding boxes of glazed doughnuts, with bags of hot chocolate strapped to their backs. Throughout the match, they competed for the audiences’ attention, and at times stood directly in front of us, obliviously blocking our view.
Theï¿½ match began with a number by the cheerleading squad, dressed in short silver skirts with matching knee-high socks. Then the players ran out onto the field, the Stormers greeted with cheers, the Chiefs with derision. From the scrum, the Chiefs seized the ball and attempted to pass it downï¿½ the field. Boom! Man down! The action hung in pause as the First Aid buggy rushed to the rescue. This theme continued throughout the match. One incident was particularly long, attending to a Stormers' player who it turned out had broken his leg. The Chiefs scored early on and then scored again.ï¿½ I put on my second sweater, giving up the hope of getting any warmer. Finally the Stormers gained some points as well, but they remained behind for the duration of the game. Spectators around us gave shouts of indignation at their poor performance and yelled advice on what they should be doing. Around ten minutes before the match was due to end, people started to leave. I was shocked. How could they walk out before the game had finished? They were clearly fed up with their home team's performance and ill inclined to witness more of it, but what kind of message would their departure send to an already underperforming team?
My companion pointed out an alternate view: perhaps they were simply avoiding the congestion inevitable at the end of the match. A valid concern, but poor excuse to walk out prematurely, in my opinion. During those final minutes, the action intensified, the Stormers intent on attacking and the Chiefs on defending. And then, the Stormers scored! The crowd cheered, and I was grateful we'd stayed to see this small truimph. Soon after, the players formed two lines and moved past members of the opposing team, shaking their hands and at times giving hugs to congratulate them on their performance. I left with the overall friendly spirit of the game inside me, glad to have been a part of the experience.