Short Story: Risk and Reward – By Geoff Burrowes

– By Geoff Burrowes

    This is deeply personal. Still I think it will touch many people who have had similar experiences.

Like every small boy I came through child hood with scrapes and bruises, cuts and sprains. It comes from romping with friends, playing chaser, climbing trees and occasionally doing ‘stupidness’ like rubber gun fights and even mudball scraps. Sometimes we would be tempted into climbing neighbor’s mango trees when they had plenty big , ripe juicy mangos! Some even from learning to ride a bicycle! We used to call it “gravel rash”.

In school I used to skip  sports period whenever I could get away with it as I wasn’t one of the popular boys and wasn’t friends with the football and cricket form captains and rarely got picked until last and it was humiliating. So when I got the chance to play rugby, which was not a school sport I jumped at it. And loved it!         

Now here is where the risk and reward comes in. The reward was the game itself: The flutter in your stomach before the game began – not through fear of injury but through fear of messing up and letting your team down.

If you’re not familiar with rugby in British Guiana in the 1960’s it was formed along socioeconomic lines: There were two teams, one was mainly Guyanese who had been to school in England and learnt the game there. The other was mostly expatriates, many from the sugar estates and Sandbach Parker and Bookers. A few were Guianese youth who had learnt the game in their teens from the knowledgeable players, with varying degrees of success. The expats who loved the game and were fearful of its demise decided to bring in and train up local teens and we were among the lucky ones.

Now comes an incident that I have never mentioned before as it doesn’t reflect well on anyone involved, including me. One of our group was  black.  His nickname was Tommy. He played table tennis with us.

A Chinese couple, whose children were older and had left home were kind enough to let us play on the table tennis table under their house on Crown Street and we had an unofficial table tennis club and a perpetual ping pong game going on. Tommy was quick and agile and one of our better players!

During rugby trials he proved fast and his coordination transferred nicely to rugby. When they announced the first trial game Tommy was left off. I spoke to the president of the club, assuming that it was a clerical error and was told that if one black man was allowed on the team soon they would take over.  So there was a colour bar in rugby and our friend was a victim. We already were hooked and rather than doing something about it, like refusing to play without him, we chose to ignore it. I said that no one came out of the incident with credit – that’s wrong Tommy did. Tommy had the grace to remain our friend although we had betrayed him.

Since our team actively recruited from QC a few years later, and at the same time a new club was formed called the All Blacks, after the great New Zealand rugby team, the colour bar in rugby in Guyana disappeared completely.

It was however a shameful part of my past and as I say only Tommy emerged with his grace intact.

Risk and the Reward

What about the Risk and the Reward? The Reward was the game itself. From the flutter in my stomach on game days – not from fear of hard contact or injury but from fear of messing up and letting the team down. That never stopped for the sixteen years that I played.

We lined up and the whistle blew to start the game and the flutter was magically gone replaced by a fierce joy that stayed until the final whistle, ending the game.  The joy of physical exertion, pushing ourselves past the limit, cutting off the other team’s attacks, good hard tackling, clean passes and defending against strategic kicks and occasionally retaliating against an opposition foul and sometimes rejoicing in a try or a win! There was then the camaraderie I had never experienced in any other sport, not just with our team but also with our adversaries.

Regardless of who won or lost the game we had all endured a fierce battle, done our best, were exhausted and it didn’t matter what had happened on the field, what we had done to one another. We had all striven together and wanted nothing more than to celebrate the grand game with one another over a cold Banks Beer. We were once invited back to the Police Sergeant’s mess after a particularly hard fought game where we were treated to neat rum in 8 gallon glasses. At the time I was nursing a bite, with teeth marks on my back from the opposing second row forward who I love to this day and with whom I toasted the game in neat rum!

When I remember rugby I don’t remember the blows and injuries but that great camaraderie!

Here we come to the Risk! Rugby is a full contact sport, played without any protection, apart from a scrun cap to protect the ears from becoming cauliflowered. It pays to be fit and tough and the harder the player hits his opponent the less chance of injury to himself and the more his team dominates the opposition. Having said that we never aimed to hurt or injure – just to impose our will on the opposing player. However with full contact there will always be unintended injuries. Looking back I can remember most of them.

Scrapes and bruises didn’t count as, on the hard Caribbean pitches, baked by the tropical sun, every time you threw a tackle or fell, your knees and elbows would get scraped. We wore those with pride!

The first injury I remember was between the posts on the Diamond field when a friend on the other team inadvertently punched out a front tooth as I carried the ball out in defence! Since I had to attend a company dinner that night the missing tooth garnered much comment! When I take my plate out the missing teeth make me look like a hockey player.

Also on Diamond field I dived on to a squibbing kick and landed, stomach first, on the sharp end of the ball. I can’t remember the rest of the game until I came to in the showers. Odd eh?

A few months later I went up in the air to block a kick from a bruising wing three quarter, Stan Headley. The kick went low and while I was stretched out hit me right in my most sensitive part. I only lost my senses for a minute that time!

I lucked out shortly after and made the team to Jamaica as a reserve. As it happened there, other injuries and their bad luck was my good luck and I played every game.

After one game I had to sleep on my side because I had a juicy bruise on my left hip.

I played in England for the beer league team at Osterley Park, out of position, at Wing Three Quarter!

We played a Royal Bank team one Saturday morning. The ball popped up invitingly from a lineout – I grabbed it and went for the try line, which was only defended by a pudgy full back. I put a sweet move on him and after I was past him the try line stretched before me. Somehow he was able to turn and crunched me from behind. I had never felt so much pain. I had to be helped off the field with my right knee unable to take any weight and after a ride to Battersea Hospital was diagnosed with torn ligaments and had the fluid drained off my knee with a galvanized instrument that looked like one of those things that looked like it was designed for squirting nutrients into plants. I then hobbled home on borrowed crutches and went to a party in the West End, where I danced (hobbled) under the pain-killing influence of good Guyanese rum until the wee hours of the morning. As you can imagine healing that time was slow and that knee hurt until my late forties.

The reason I have bored you with this litany of injuries is because we have to weigh the risks inherent in whatever course of action we take. In my case rugby was the game I loved and I was willing to endure the injuries for the joy of playing the great game! I hope everyone playing rugby enjoys it as much as I did and avoids the injuries! If not enjoy the memories. They will be with you forever!

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