And so, in an instant, the schools rugby season was over and, just as fast, it really did not matter a jot.
As the Prime Minister and the country’s top medical advisors spelled out exactly the gravity of COVID-19 and the measures that were to come into effect, and the hint of future measures, the whole of English rugby was shut down, including the Rosslyn Park HSBC National School 7s next week, today’s U18 and U15 Schools Plate and Bowl finals at Allianz Park, and Thursday’s U18 and U15 Schools Cup and Vase finals at Twickenham.
As that unfolded this writer was packing bags and working out an isolation plan in order to be able to safely be with and support my sister. She suffers from Cystic Fibrosis, she is in the high risk category and will have to be heavily socially distanced for 12 weeks, minimum, it seems. Sport, rugby, and a lack of it, hardly seem relevant.
The world just became very real, for us all. I share this not in search of sympathy but because in one way or another just about every person that reads this will have a similar situation, whether that be elderly or vulnerable relatives, friends, or colleagues. Rugby being cancelled is a shame, but it is so clearly the right decision. Trust us, our livelihood depends on it, or at least we hope it still can.
It is why the swathes of social media messages of the Schools Cup and Rosslyn Park 7s on Monday evening were baffling, ‘I hope you realise how important this is to the kids and how hard they’ve worked, you’d better be postponing not cancelling’ being the rough theme. Anyone thinking these decisions have been made on the hoof is delusional, anyone thinking the organisers do not realise what it means to the players is equally so. Do we all hope it’s postponement not cancellation? Of course. But we have no idea how long this is going to last so let’s not make demands of people that they can have no reasonable ability to guarantee to meet.
It really does not matter, it’s sport.
Except, of course, sport does matter.
Here’s the thing. If you are someone that stumbles across these pages then you are someone for whom sport, at least on some level, is a part of your life. For those of us that love it, that care about it, that can obsess over it, sport really matters – it is the constant. Like a mother’s unconditional love, sport is just there, sometimes you notice it and truly appreciate it, but most of the time it’s just a given, taken for granted in some ways.
Of course sport doesn’t matter. Of course things should be cancelled. Family, society, health, friendship, these things are all that matter in the weeks and months to come, they are all that really matter the rest of the time, too.
The great paradox, of course, is that despite that knowledge, that obvious and logical knowledge, sport does matter. Not in a life or death way, Bill Shankly got that one wrong, but for those of us that it matters to it matters as a form of entertainment, as a rhythm to the week, the month, the year (Lions 2021 has been earmarked in my diary since 2017 signed off), as a way of connecting with friends and family, as stem to boredom, an escape to childhood dreams, an escape from adult realities. Sport means something different to everyone but to everyone that cares, it means something.
To us it ultimately boils down to inspiration. Sport gives you heroes, it gives you Ben Stokes this summer, it gives you that series of Brian O’Driscoll performances en route to the 2009 Grand Slam, it gives you Michael Jordan in the 90s just about every time he set foot on the floor, it gives you Andy Murray in 2013, it gives you that glorious Welsh try last week.
Sport inspires and gives us heroes, that’s what it’s for. And that’s why it’s got to go right now. In most times of crisis we often turn to sport for comfort and distraction, to get lost in the stories of our heroes just for a minute. Right now though, heroes of a different sort are the order of the day, from the scientists working round the clock to find any way to vaccinate or stem the tide to health workers doing everything to help us all, to the scenes of Italians making music together on their balconies. Our heroes, for now, have changed.
And like all our sporting heroes, there’s a supporting cast behind – and that supporting cast is all of us us. Sport must go because we are the supporting cast, by distancing ourselves and washing our hands, and quite simply just mucking in, we are buying this story’s heroes the time they need.
My sister was due to run the marathon next month for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. She was using sport to highlight her plight and that of many others like her – tell her sport doesn’t matter.
The marathon was, rightly, postponed and my sister is now hunkered down for months – try telling her sport does matter now.
So we knuckle down, we do our bit, we let our new heroes step up, and at some point, some time, someone will say ‘do you fancy a ticket?’ and you’ll say ‘yes’, and suddenly, out of nowhere, the world will be normal again, and we’ll go back to celebrating Stuart Hogg’s latest wonder effort or pretending that it matters whether someone got a yellow card or a red card.
Until then, stay safe, and hopefully see you on a touchline sooner rather than later.