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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

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After rugby, no longer a girl who can only say yes

This sporting life – it’s never without its stresses and strains. Either you’re the competitive kind or you’re like me... not.

Some find urgent contest in a run for the bus. Others remain forever lost in bewilderment at an all-consuming obsession with anything winnable.

Lost cause –that’s me. I’m a girl who never sorted her penalty shoot-outs from her bullying-off. Cricket leaves me cold. I struggle manfully with the offside rule – as applied to the Wimbledon men’s finals – but to no avail. And if all that weren’t bad enough, matters recently got a whole lot worse.

Nobody would have believed it possible, given my record of leaving well alone. Sport and I have shared a relationship of mutual respect for years.

I keep an ignorant distance. Sport offers no resistance.

But that changed when, much against every instinct of better judgement, I accepted an invitation to a rugby union match. Not just any rugby union match – a Falcons vs Ospreys match. At Newcastle, where they take rugby seriously. Competitively.

“But I’m a rugby league girl. Rhinos, Rams – that’s my game. I don’t understand union.”

Pleading determination not to show myself up at Kingston Park was making no impression.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “There’s dinner and champagne. What’s to understand?”

“But there’s complicated stuff – scrums and turnovers, rucks and mauls. I won’t know what’s happening or why.”

“Don’t you like champagne?”

I relented. She’s persuasive at the best of times but with champagne and dinner... well, you know how hard it is to let down a friend. Guess I’m just a girl who can’t say no.

Off we trundled in the cold. Ten of us on a mini-bus to Newcastle. Destination hospitality box with private terrace overlooking floodlit pitch, a dining table groaning with food and drink, a plasma screen for the fainthearted likely to feel the chill of a brisk north-easterly and growing trepidation about imminent rucks, mauls, conversions... and Charleston kicks.

“Excuse me,” she enquired of the hostess-cum-waitress in charge of sporting broadcasts on our personal plasma. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course. Anything,” replied the pretty young thing, eager to please. They’re such a friendly lot, Geordies.

“Could you switch that TV from rugby to Strictly Come Dancing?”

Correction. I’m not, actually, a girl who can’t say it.

“Oh no!” I groaned to no-one in particular and everyone in general, while searching sheepishly for a scrum to crawl into.

On the basis of the customer being always right, two engineers were called to tinker valiantly with the telly’s innards until, to one end of the room, big, brave lads were thundering their thighs up and down the pitch in a cold wind, while at the other Ann Widdecombe was lumbering hers across a screen of snow.

With back turned deliberately on Widdy, I kept one eye on the lads and – admittedly – another on the champers... to be polite, you understand.

The Falcons were doing well – very well in the first half. Had I been more confident in comprehension of rules and scoring, I might even have been tempted toward excitement.

At the dinner table things were moving towards half-time too. Strictly had run its dubiously competitive course and this sporting life was taking a new turn. To ITV.

“Hate to be a bother...” she doesn’t really. “But could you switch it to X Factor now?”

Again I proved wrong.

“Oh no!” I moaned.

Once more and it would be a habit.

The Falcons, God bless ’em, won. It was close though. Very close. Falcons 18- Ospreys 17. A whisker, no more than a hair. Even I knew it had been a tight game. Touch and go in the second half. Nail-biting.

When two Falcons players strode into our box, flushed from the shower – and from success – they received heartfelt congratulations on a match well-played and concerned questions about a brutally-hard contest, very well won.

“We lads are all like that,” explained one of the proud and bright-eyed. “We take a good thumping and just love to come back for more.”

“Wow!” I said. “Great tip. Thanks for that.”

“Excuse me. I have a question.” She wore a smile that suggested a foul might be on the way. He flashed a return grin, pleasantly.

“Do you think Ann Widdecombe will be voted out tomorrow?”

“Oh no!”

And there it was. The groan that sealed the habit, confirming I was no longer a girl who just couldn’t say it.

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