It’s not quite raining as we troop off the bus. Anyone not from Ireland would say that it was, but like the Eskimos’ forty words for snow, today is simply soft; perfect weather for rugby. The leaves have blown up against the kerbstones like confetti from last night’s wedding, oaks mixing with chestnuts, all destined for the groundsman’s brush and a mulch pile.
Because there’s obviously a groundsman here. The mature trees, the razored grass edges, the pristine sports pitches all scream that there has been a groundsman here for generations. Look at all that space, boys! To have something like this in a country town is one thing, but here, in the heart of Belfast? This is the cradle of civilisation – it must have cost a fortune to build all this.
And what sort of boys go to such a wealthy school? In my mind’s eye, I see hordes of mature teenagers trot out with the discipline of an army, taller, stronger, better-looking that our rabble. The sort of boy that stands when your mother enters the room, meets your Dad’s eye over a firm handshake, and has to choose between offers from Oxford and Cambridge. How are we even going to compete, let alone win? Not for the first time that morning, I feel nervous.
Truth be told, I feel nervous every Saturday morning, every time we play. It’s worse at home, as my parents are there week in, week out – watching, supporting, advising. But even after an hour in a battered Ulsterbus, the butterflies are still having a party in my guts.
I try and think through my fears as I lumber churlishly towards the changing rooms, surrounded by my team. They’re half the problem. They’re not just my team-mates, they’re my class-mates and my friends. I really don’t want to let them down. Or myself, for that matter. I’m a good enough player, but I can have off days, like anyone else. Let today not be one of those days.
I stop just as we enter the games pavilion to don our rugby kit. I look back at the pitches, knowing that within the hour, thirty boys are going to throw themselves at each other in a life-and-death battle. I smell the light wind, a few desultory raindrops landing on my face as my friends bundle past me, teasing and complaining as I block the doorway. And I know that today will be a good day, regardless of the perceived stature of our opposition, regardless of my jitters, regardless of the outcome. Today will be a good day. I tell myself that.
What I don’t realise is that thirty years from now, I will be walking through the centre of a foreign capital that I call home. It will be not-quite-raining, although anyone not from Ireland might argue that point. The leaves of oak and chestnut will mingle with those of maple and linden, but they’ll still be lying in the gutter like drunks. And I will remember that day in Belfast, those emotions, those feelings.
And I will know that today will be a good day.