Sitting on the bleachers eight rows back. Five minutes into the game something unusual happens. The home team receives the ball behind the 22; they’re under territorial pressure and the opponents have the ascendancy. The usual pattern of play is to kick the ball behind the opposition’s line in order to gain ground, then run forward, receive the return kick and continue this way until one team kicks for the touchline. It’s tactical, and one could argue, the ‘correct’ way to play, but for spectators it becomes deadly boring, uninspiring and disheartening.
But today they’re not playing “usual”; they’re playing for “keeps”. The home team; the Reds; run the ball. A murmur ripples through the crowd. “They’re running it, they’re keeping possession.” The crowd hasn’t seen this style of play for a very long time; perhaps the younger ones have never seen it.
At the breakdown, support players pour in and the ball is retained, they go again into a new phase of play and another breakdown. The Reds retain possession again and again as phase after phase of play they grind their way back into the opponents territory. This is thrilling stuff. It’s a hard way to play. The opposition team, the Bulls; determined men from South Africa; where success in Rugby is valued currency, provide relentless defense. The game continues this way, and for 80 minutes we witness one of the toughest and most courageous displays of rugby ever played.
I’m attending the game with three of my four sons and their friends. It’s my second son’s birthday. I look over to Daniel and attempt to call above the crowd, at that moment they’re yelling abuse at the referee; in their opinion the ref has made an unbelievably stupid decision; “bullshit, bullshit, bullshit” they deride in unison. I make the attempt again and shout out: “this is brilliant stuff – what a great birthday present”. Daniel grins back and nods. Father and sons; we’re having a great time. Can you script this stuff? I think to myself.
The ingredients are all here. A great story is unfolding. The Reds; my team (please excuse the use of the possessive pronoun, passion and history require it) are the underdogs. They’ve been in decline for nearly a decade. It’s been a miserable time for Red’s supporters. The Bulls are the top team. The referee is making shocking decisions in the Bull’s favour. There are flashes of brilliance on both sides. The game seesaws, teetering on the brink of devastation and elation. Nothing is certain. Spectators are treated to rugged ‘keep possession at all costs’ play from the Reds. The Bulls begin to make uncharacteristic mistakes, but then regain composure.
The game continues this way. Both teams have points on the board. The Reds remain ahead by 7-points (the total number of points of a converted try). Its ten minutes to go before full time and the Reds are keeping the Bulls out, only metres from their line. I’m sweating and yelling, the boys are sweating and yelling, the crowd is sweating and chanting. “Come on You Reds”. It’s tense. The Reds deserve to win. They’ve dared to do something out of the ordinary. Hard pressed the Bull’s supporters would concede this fact. But no one is giving ground today.
And then at last: with the final whistle – there is jubilation in our voices and in our hearts. The underdog has prevailed and ten years of dejection vanishes in a heartbeat. We roar, we hug, we parade – we share a moment that will be long lasting in our regaling and our celebration.
This was great theatre: unscripted sport for the masses. A story my boys and I will well remember.
But is this audacious to call it great theatre: to compare events on the sporting field to scripted masterpieces of our time? Similar ingredients exist, yet there are the obvious differences including the absence of verisimilitude. Perhaps it is the appeal of the prevailing metaphor of: heroic struggle, display of courage, and daring in the face of adversity: a theme common in human history. Perhaps it is about the joy of bearing witness to it and the shared experience of uncertainty and triumph. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if the term is used loosely.
However I can’t help consider the possibility that similar experiences await me in a different arena. Could it be that one day I will take my kin to the Theatre and together we will be exhilarated by the story that unfolds? Will we chant and cheer in the bleachers and go home with soaring hearts and aching sides? Will we say? We have been to the Theatre and it was extraordinary.
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