A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
If you’re a rugby fan, it’s that time of the year again. Those of us with a drop of Celtic blood in us rediscover our patriotism, anyone who ever touched an oddly-misshapen ball or pulled on torn school rugby kit as a teenager becomes an expert on the offside rule, and Saturdays are spent in front of our TVs, listening as Brian Moore gives another hefty dollop of fair, unbiased commentary on the game at hand. Yes, it’s the Six Nations. Studying in Budapest last year, the event passed me by. Hungarians don’t do rugby, and the geographical limitations of BBC iPlayer are harshly exposed living outside of the UK without a proxy server! But this year, it’s different. Dutch networks carry BBC, allowing me and my rugby-loving housemates to waste valuable reading time with weekend afternoons of pizza, beer, and sport on TV. It’s great.
But after that introduction, there have to be some of you, if not all of you, wondering where this is going. Have no fear. All will be revealed. Because, about a month ago, when the Six Nations was only an enticing blip on the horizon, and my female friends had yet to start their discussion of which England player was the new Johnny Wilkinson (in terms of kicking ability, I’m sure), I was invited to go down to the Leiden University Sports Centre one very blustery Saturday afternoon. Wrap up warm, I was told, but don’t worry, we’re making Gluhwijn for everyone beforehand. And what was this momentous occasion? What merited getting 20 bottles of cheap plonk, adding a tonne of sugar, and abusing the water-boiler until the brew reached a pleasant drinking temperature? Well, it was the final game of the season for LSRG, the Leiden Students Rugby Club.
My initial surprise at finding out rugby was played here in the Netherlands was soon tempered. Of course, I thought, of all the foreign students who flock to Leiden, some were bound to prefer the ‘gentleman’s game’ to football. Sure, there’ll be a team, but it’ll be a bit of a slap-dash affair, I told myself. Maybe they play the occasional game against other university clubs. But on arrival at the ground, it became apparent that I had massively underestimated the operation. Firstly, the big guns in the team were all Dutch. This was indeed no expat sports club. Secondly, the club structure, with both a 1st XV and a 2nd XV, was impressive, and the league structure, which, as club head honcho Robbin told me, sometimes entails long car journeys down to the islands in the South, or treks to the far East (or, at least Nijmegen), is equally professional-sounding.
Additionally, the history of LSRG is something to hold in high regard. Attempting to balance 100 stacked plastic cups, two plates of half-time oranges, and a cauldron-full of warm alcoholic goodness, Robbin showed me into the clubroom, and unimposing building shared with the ‘Football Factory’ (a team, not an outsourced production centre) and the Leiden hockey club. Around the top of the bar (which serves good cheap booze after the matches), shields and pennants of a wide number of visiting teams are affixed. Some shine brightly, newly-painted tokens from recent matches. Others, darkened with the passage of time and attachment of dirt, recall instances from decades back, such as the visit of the Welsh Guards Rugby Team, or a student tour by Brasenose College (and yes, I was pleased to see a fair representation from my alma mater ante). Apparently, it’s quite a draw for touring teams to be named one of the best teams in the area, which LSRG 1st XV have been on multiple occasions in the past.
Are they one of the best around now, I hear the (possible) queries? Well, that was what I was here to find out. This was the last day of the season, and LSRG sat in a cluster of 3 teams fighting for the runners-up spot in the Second Division. The 2nd placed team at the end of the season would have the chance to move up to the top division, and who better to face on the final day than the team currently occupying that coveted gateway to the major leagues. After a shaky start, LSRG opened up, and although I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow account, noting only the rapid deterioration of the weather after the last drops of wine had disappeared, they went on to take a solid victory. Success, we thought, promotion lies ahead. But then, in the dying moments, phones started to ring, loud cursing was heard, and, on the pitch, the players appeared to slump somewhat. The 4th placed team at the beginning of the day had enjoyed a demolition of their opponents, allowing them to leapfrog the two clubs slugging it out on the increasingly agricultural pitch at the LUSC. LSRG missed out on points-difference, an agonising way to end the season.
But triumph in adversity is a wonderful thing, and if they weren’t going to succeed on the pitch, they were definitely going to have a go off it. The bar filled rapidly on the final whistle, and was rammed when the players made it out of the showers and into the clubroom. As I sneaked away to recover feeling in my fingers, I heard plans of various adventures for the evening, many of which brought back fond memories of post-match celebrations I’d ‘survived’ at university! What about the disappointment of no promotion? Well, as more than one player said, ‘we’d have been stuffed in division one anyway – teams don’t know how to have fun up there!’ And for me, that pretty much summed up what I took away from that cold afternoon spent watching egg-chasers – let’s play rugby, let’s do well, but most of all – let’s have some fun!