The start of a new school year beckons and with it comes the start of the school rugby season.
Many 1st XV squads, and indeed Colts squads, will have completed, or be in the process of completing a punishing pre season schedule where bodies will have been pushed to the limits and testing games against rugged opposition completed â€“ all that remains are the final few training sessions before the first official match of the season, for many in ten days time on the 7th September.
That first game of the season is a nervy one for players and coaches alike, the nature of school rugby is that there is a high turnover of players from year to year, that brings untested combinations and players at that level and makes predicting how your school will fare a tricky business.
Players will fall into three categories for most schools, those that were in the 1st XV last year, those who were in the Colts last year and move seamlessly to the 1st XV this, and those who toiled in the 2nd XV last year.
Each has their own unique set of concerns going into the first game, for the old timers there is the responsibility of being the senior players in the team, with a year of experience under their belts they are expected to lead the side and to set the tone in both training and in games. Whether last season was a good or a bad one, there is a certain pressure to better it this year â€“ everyone wants to end on a high, and they know that they are the key to that.
Those promoted from the Colts will feel a pressure to perform in that opening game, for no matter how good you have been in your junior years and how well you have performed in pre season when that first real game comes along there are always questions in your head, questioning your right and ability to be there. Often a young player will be keeping an older player out of the team, perhaps one who expected to be there this year, that too provides a challenge that takes a certain mental toughness to rise to.
The players who spent their Lower 6th year in the 2nd XV have perhaps the most nerve-wracking build up of all. They were likely 1st team players throughout their junior years in school and then had to spend the previous season in the 2nd XV working hard to prove that they should be in the 1st XV. Given that chance now they feel a great pressure, whether it is actually there or not, to perform in the opening game lest they be dropped in week 2 and spend a second and final year in the seconds, like those promoted from the Colts there are always the voices of self doubt too, not an insignificant hurdle to overcome.
If the opening game of the season is at home then the pressure for all is increased, for in most schools if there is one fixture that is guaranteed to attract a large and noisy crowd it is a home 1st XV game in the first week of term. That mixture of warm weather, excitement at the reuniting of friends and the ability to push kick offs back to late afternoon (a point of particular resonance for returning old boys and girls) seems to always draw in an atmosphere that sums up the joys of schoolboy rugby perhaps better than any other time in the calendar, however when you are the one running out onto the pitch it certainly does not feel that way â€“ nobody likes to look like a fool in front of their peers, particularly not at school, and at that moment it feels as though that is exactly the opportunity that is available lest you make some poor error.
It can be easy to forget that everyone is there because they want you to do well, wishing for you to do well, and that it is far worse for those in the opposition who will know they are the prey in this particular battle. However you must not forget it because if you can bear that in mind then it can be something to feed off and to use to drive your performance.
In the end though, the first game of the season is actually far less significant than it seems at the time and much of that pressure that players put on themselves for it need not exist. It often takes a few weeks for the pattern of a season to emerge because some schools will have had a more cohesive pre season than others, some schools will have a lot of continuity from their 2012/13 1st XV whilst others will have very little and will require a few games to get comfortable, very few seasons at School 1st XV level are defined by the opening day.
Players need not fear that this is their one and only chance either, coaches do not select on a whim and if a player has been selected it is because they believe they deserve to be there, one below par performance does not change that, particularly given the relatively small pool of players that schools have to choose from.
Most of all though, the first game of the season is something to be enjoyed, schoolboy rugby is to be enjoyed. For many it will be the best rugby that they will ever play, perhaps the highest quality but also perhaps the most free and fast form of the game they will play (or indeed be fit enough to play). Not only that but it is a chance to be around the friends you have made over the last four or five years and to strive to achieve something special in what will be for many their final year.
You have an opportunity to play with and against players that might well go on to become top international rugby players, something that most on the field each weekend will never get the opportunity to do again.
Sport does, after all, primarily exist for the enjoyment of those playing it. School 1st XV rugby is, with the possible exception of sevens, one of the most joyful forms of rugby that there is â€“ serious but not too serious, played with the closest friends you have, and performed in surroundings and with facilities and pitches that will be the best that most players will ever perform at.
Enjoy the opening weekend, but most of all enjoy the season, the memories and the wonderful privilege. We at Fifteen Rugby cannot wait, hopefully you as players, parents, coaches and fellow pupils will all agree.