David Flatman: Awash with fear while swimming with the sharks
Win the game, a bit of man-wrestling, a few beers and watch State of Origin – the touring life's for me
Sunday 20 June 2010
Another great week to be a sportsman. Tuesday night's win against the Australian Barbarians was hardly a classic but to win felt wonderful. The match began at such a clip that we on the bench wondered quite how long those on the field might last. And, in the end, our fears were realised as it became a battle of the gorillas. The advice from Graham Rowntree to the panting pack was simple: "You lot need to find a way to win." Exactly the right advice, spoken in the only tone an utterly exhausted front-rower can absorb.
We did manage to find a way and, while it wasn't pretty, the scoreboard looked right come the final whistle and the bus journey back was as all journeys should be. A few local beers easily dealt with and some healthy, manly wrestling thrown in to abate some of the overflowing testosterone one would expect of a touring rugby team. Of course when touring we leave loved ones behind, so no family members or animals had to view what happened behind those strategically darkened windows, but suffice it to say it might have made the odd pacifist flinch.
After a nice, quiet night in central Sydney, it was up bright and early the next morning to go diving with sharks. Just a normal Wednesday for me, but the other lads were quite excited. I played it cool, like the tour veteran who had seen it all before. Until, that was, one of the things swam so close to me that I could smell his breath (I swear it smelled of human flesh). Then the reality of the situation kicked in and my overactive brain went into overdrive; I am a land mammal who is not supposed to be in here with these enormous lumps of prehistoric muscle. Within seconds I had convinced myself that sharks could not only smell blood, but fear too. And that my nervousness was bound to make me look like breakfast.
Having managed to mask my terror from the other lads, we made it back to terra firma. "Piece of cake," I scoffed, chest fully inflated and arms hanging so far from my body that I might have been carrying carpets. Then the instructor decided to go the extra mile by showing us our own personal movie of the dive. My posture was destroyed when he panned slowly past Nick Easter, Tim Payne and Rob Webber – who were all visibly excited by the shark being so close that we could have touched it – and on to me, frozen solid, eyes looking straight ahead and face com-pletely white. How we laughed. At one point, when he had peeled himself off the floor, Payne asked me why my hands were clamped together as if I were in prayer. "Payner," I said, "I think you'll agree, my fingers look more like tasty sausages than human fingers, so I was trying to take them off the menu." Glad to be of such amusement to the group, I also thoroughly enjoyed how often Payne managed to bring it up over dinner, just in case there was a player who had not yet heard.
Were I to design an evening to help me recover from the trauma of the afternoon, it would have looked just like the one we had. All you can eat at the famous Ribs and Rump restaurant on the beachfront at Manly and a big screen showing the second game of the State of Origin rugby league series between Queensland and New South Wales. For once the ribs were a sideshow as one of the best sporting shows I have seen unfolded on the screen before us. There were perfect hits, breathtaking tries and blatant, all-in brawls but the aspects of it I loved the most were, believe it or not, the refereeing and the commentary.
There seems to be an unwritten rule for Origin here that in order for a man to be sent off, he must commit murder with a lethal weapon. Now I am not advocating violence in sport but please, find a way to watch it with the volume right up and tell me you don't love it. The only blokes who love it more are the commentators. These guys are playing the game themselves, they know how the men on the field feel about Origin and they revel in the intensity and sheer aggression of the rivalry. The players seemed almost superhuman in their physicality and desire, and these traits were matched by the men with the microphones.
So this is touring; arriving in new cities, doing the job on the field, celebrating afterwards with a different band of brothers and lapping up what the local culture has to offer. So it is on to New Zealand we trek for what promises to be a nice, friendly evening against the Maori. As season-enders go this is a pretty tough one. My only hope is that we do again find that way to win because life is just better that way. And we all love a bit of man-wrestling after dark, don't we?
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