Marist College Ashgrove vs. Padua College; AIC 1st XV Rugby, Round 3; Brother Francis McMahon Oval; 14/5/2016
“From the moment the visitors began their warm up on the field’s far side – tackle bags wheezing and whistling like emphysema-riddled geriatrics escaping house fires – it was pretty clear that they were a bunch of butchers ready to do unspeakable things to whatever flesh they got their steel-gloved mitts on.”
Report by Nicholas Turner
The annals of bonehead sporting plays are a long and sordid record, and it is the quiet desire of all competitors to go undocumented therein. Sport is a contest first, but it’s also a performance, sometimes even a spectacle, and an unforced failure will make the most seasoned competitor wish she was water for the turf to drink up and vanquish forever. And if there is a stage more intimate and personal than schoolboy competition, your correspondent considers it rare indeed. Indeed, the Padua College 1st XV’s burly hooker is not the first player to upend a defenceless receiver in the echo of a rugby game’s opening whistle. He’s not the first to have a fixture brought to an affected halt before the pill has so much as kissed the grass. But as he waddles head-in-hands to the sideline, there’s little doubting he feels like an original kind of idiot.
In the context of a game here that matters mucho to his team and the thousand or so supporters that have travelled across the city to see them battle the spiritual giants of Marist College Ashgrove, to call this an ‘unfortunate brain-explosion’ would be seriously underselling it. Even for a dispassionate observer with a notepad and pen, the compelling hypothetical thrown up by the team sheets and history books for today’s contest between table-topping AIC teams seems to lose its titillating hiss and unveil an awkward silence, like a Webber that someone forgot to replace the gas-bottle for before a long weekend away.
For one, the home side of Ashgrove are not a team that requires extra confidence. At the beginning of the third round of the AIC 1st XV competition they have scored 136 points and conceded zero. Nor does any opponent especially want to kick the rather magnificent hive of destiny that is their history of success. In the sixteen years of the refined, eight-team AIC competition, Ashgrove have won ten premierships, seven of which were outright and undefeated. It has finished the race worse than second only twice, and never finished outside fourth. And nor, finally, does one wish to give them a special invitation to put on an exhibition for a big home crowd that isn’t used to concession speeches. Indeed, something self-fulfilling really does seem to be happening when after a few minutes of firing a potent-looking backline at a reeling defence that stumbles backward, helpless, the Ashgrove boys claim a seven pointer that looks, well, ominous.
You never in your life saw a sixteen year old boy who wished more that he was made of the kind of matter that could evaporate. The hooker’s ten minutes in the sinbin looks like it might get eternal.
It’s a cool twenty-two degrees, cloudless and crisp, one of those pseudo-wintery Brisbane days where it’s so nice in the stands that you could literally watch the grass grow. And Ashgrove’s home turf is a beauty. Beset on a sunny crest in the suburban north-west, its immediate surrounds describe a Neenish tart of tranquil Catholic school grounds abounding in pointy buildings and monuments, and a charmed neighbourhood of trees and stilted cottages lined up like dominoes. The playing surface’s fine, short-grassed ellipse of tree-snake green appears so rich and healthy it looks like the field is silently breathing. The western grandstand is teeming with mums and dads and boys in uniforms distracted by girls not in uniforms. While to the east two opposing wolf-packs of old-boys in thongs observe a cautious truce on either side of a picturesque scoreboard. Plenty of blazered schoolboys are scoffing down the output of a well oiled canteen production-line the way only teenage boys can scoff. Those non-uniformed girls try not to look disgusted.
The field is encircled by sinuous driveways across which C-Class’s and SUVs pump boys in and out of the place on a busy Saturday afternoon of hosting sport. But no doubt the more dramatic way to approach and appreciate the real estate here is to make the back-door pilgrimage from Enoggera Creek, compelled up a steep goat track and across a dramatic giant’s-footprint of a second field by the haunting vision of a bone-white 1930s seminary hanging in the clouds. One gets to feel the air as it thins.
As ten agonising minutes end for the banished hooker and he begins again to stalk the sidelines, the seven point deficit offers relative mercy to his shame. He soon gets right down to business, putting the blunt finishing touches on an utter scrum dominance that even a seven-man forward pack had begun imposing on the leaner Ashgrove frontline. As yet unmentioned, and absolutely crucial to understanding how today’s contest unfolds, is the almost exhaustive physical superiority of the leviathan Padua forwards; from the moment the visitors began their warm up on the field’s far side – tackle bags wheezing and whistling like emphysema-riddled geriatrics escaping house fires – it was pretty clear that they were a bunch of butchers ready to do unspeakable things to whatever flesh they got their steel-gloved mitts on. And without exactly needing to put eyeholes in your newspaper and sit inconspicuously to grasp the hubbub, one was aware long before the whistle that any spare spiritual currency among the Ashgrove supporters was paying for prayers that Padua didn’t really know how to manage all that heft.
And this small but critical bit of psychological second-guessing is why the hooker’s madness in the game’s opening moments almost blew the whole ambush that his team had conceived for their opponents. Because one has the distinct sense that Padua’s plan was to come out firebombing villages before their enemies could so much as get out of bed, and now there’s a thumb-twiddling sense of having to sit back and wait for a trooper that’s fallen out of line. And you just know that up here on Ashgrove’s thin-aired patch of paradise the home side aren’t going to sit around waiting to be incinerated once they’re wide awake.
No, sir. Instead the Ashgrove team down a heady elixir of their own favouritism and gravitas and bolt out with pitchforks. Their halves play like a pair of old friends that can call a three phase move with a wink. And the uphill task of stealing a win up here on the toughest roadtrip in the comp gets significantly graver for Padua.
When a full thirty boys are back on the park the game hits its stride, and spectator asses separate from seats. Big hits go off hither and thither like landmines. Padua’s towering forwards go straight for the stubborn, outsized Ashgrove defenders who, desperately protecting an expectation of success, punish any high running with ball-and-all tacking that more often than not earns them scrum feeds. Which scrums, unfortunately, turn out to be not much of a victory for them because they’re basically a hockey puck going one direction and Padua might as well just put out their hands and be given free kicks directly.
While the contest remains dogged and compelling all afternoon, pure rugby’s flow-chart of virtuous play is in a state of systematic frustration. Ashgrove simply can’t win a set piece, and their much-touted backline barely sees the clean ball they so very much need to rack up points. On the other hand, Padua for all their power up front don’t seem to have a line out, so while they charge up the field through scrum penalties, more often than not they relinquish the advantage anyway.
Scattered running rugby punctuates all this but is frankly at a high premium. Ashgrove’s fly-half is a talent that requires a maximum-security prisoner’s attention round the clock, while Padua’s fullback makes two individual efforts that ought bookend any decent highlight reel of the match. Throughout passages of broken play, both teams tempt the sidelines, the torch passing again and again to eager, fleet-footed runners. Desperate defence scrambles, and the one try that does come on the flanks is belatedly disallowed to the bemusement of everyone but the touch judge. Even the scoreboard has to be wound back.
At the twenty minute mark Padua level the scores in a surge at the line that puts the game back in parity where it at very least belongs. In fact, Padua’s rugby is proving simply better. Their size has well and truly been legitimised and their battery life looks good. Ashgrove’s backs have bugger all chances to throw their much talked-up smoke around. And the best the home side have come up with for the scrums is to make them a lottery; the hooker swings the heel to the effect of a sort of pinball machine from which the pill could emerge just about anywhere. The odds of winning from the feed move back to even, which is indeed a solution of a kind.
But if the interest of the game has an epicentre now it is the question of Padua’s mettle and nerve. Their suitability to victory. Because if the visitors really are still underdogs it is not for reasons of rugby merit. Though here at the centre-stage of schoolboy rah-rah there is always some kind of meddler that ain’t on any team-sheet or game-day program, so as the half-time whistle looms Padua find themselves mystically on the back foot again. Ashgrove marches toward the line through short, tide-defying runs, taking the field piece by piece until a single human effort is enough to cross. And then suddenly, like a bolt of lightning on the clearest of days, a pair of legs involuntarily breech from the smouldering bodies, and the trilling of the referee’s whistle signals more trouble for Padua.
The net result is three conceded points and another forward in the bin for ten. But what’s perhaps most cruel, and most telling of the histrionics that engulf all aspects of this occasion, is the way this feels among the Padua supporters. Kind of necessary, or foretold. Like old Sisyphus watching the boulder roll back down the hill again. The colour of the half time atmosphere is uncommitted, barely off-white. Despite everything they’ve already shown, the second half finds Padua at ground zero, burdened with the luggage of their own ill-discipline, and with everything and more left to do.
Yet to their undeniable credit they emerge unflustered and intent. Their first milestone is to keep Ashgrove scoreless during the manpower disadvantage. Which they do. The next is to find some points. To this end they launch an unbroken sequence of forward assaults that rock defenders one after another, the pick of the ball-carriers a brutal tighthead with all the hallmarks of a mobile, modern front-rower. One suddenly realises that Padua has been overly loyal to the underdog’s uniform, constricted by its no-longer-suitable cut. Now, in their most explosive phase of the afternoon, which culminates in a try, the whole heavy outfit drops off like an old skin and they play freely and very much like the superior side they are today. More points are certainly coming.
In a last bid at hoodoo, at the height of his side’s capitulation the Ashgrove flyhalf emerges from the sideline and shuffles eerily back into position. Unrecognisable following the rearrangement of something on his face, he is all blood and eyes and white bandages now, like some sort of life-sized cotton bud that’s just been drawn from a horrific wound. This blinking, running, run-calling horror – half athlete, half surgical-aid – seems for a moment like a kind of imp that’s come to put one more curse on the visitors’ improbable campaign. But by then the Padua boys have decided to deal only in material things. A superb run from their fullback to beat three if not four bemused defenders puts the game beyond a score and the visitors in a position to win that it seems they only now have permitted themselves to really occupy.
And not long after that an age-old rock finds a place to rest up there in the hills of Ashgrove. Scenes ensue.
Match Result: Padua College 19 def Marist College Ashgrove 17
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