As a 10-year-old, my biggest crisis in life was figuring out which position I would play for the Springboks. It was 1995, and Joel Stransky’s World Cup-winning kick had made him my personal saviour. However I became excessively stressed that when I played lock for South Africa I wouldn’t get the same amount of glory that, say, a flyhalf would. Fortunately – for me and the rest of South Africa – it was a problem that never happened outside of my head.
Back then, becoming a Springbok was never a matter of if. I thought: Francois Pienaar, Andre Joubert and Joel Stransky were all once boys who played rugby. I am a boy who plays rugby. Therefore, it’s only a matter of time before I make it.
The tale of my non-career in international rugby is written with indisputable numbers. Back in 1995, I had a one in 1.4 million chance of making the Bok XV. Two years later, my rugby career peaked. I was the captain of my under-13B team and I had a head swarming with mindless optimism despite already playing for the B-team at this stage. Here, at my athletic zenith, I was a 176cm tall 12-year-old. Today, I am a 177cm tall 28-year-old. Between then and now, everyone else in line for the Green and Gold had a normal growth spurt. My odds only got smaller as they got bigger.
Rugby had already been serving subtle hints to me over the years, but on one Saturday morning in the winter of 1999, it dished up a hearty lesson. I was substituted by Beong Ok-Min. Let me tell you, there’s nothing quite as humbling as fancying yourself a future Springbok and then getting replaced by the Korean exchange student. To rub it in, he scored a sitter of a try. It’s not like I ever tried to upstage him during his violin recitals.
The lessons didn’t stop there, though. As a Stormers supporter, I regularly get schooled on falling short of glory. My team hasn’t won a decent accolade in Super Rugby since we won “Weirdest Jersey” in 1998.
Supporting a mediocre team is a fantastic source of insight. Life, it turns out, isn’t all swan-dive tries and halftime oranges. Sometimes it sends you Beongs of disappointment and Flecks of tedium. And if you want to make sense of this life thing, you need to do as the Romans do and get cynical. Take Seneca, for example – a Roman philosopher who lived in a time when people were ruled by politicians who made some very stupid decisions. In other words, he was just like you and me.
Seneca said that one of the best ways to be sane is to master the art of being pessimistic. He encouraged everyone to start off each day with a premeditatio, a premeditation, in which you would run through the day ahead and imagine every single disaster that could occur – not because they would happen but because they might. This is guaranteed to make your coffee taste better, knowing that it could have scalded your loins but chose not to. Seneca also said that a man must swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not encountering anything more disgusting in the day ahead, but I’d like to think that was just a metaphor.
These sentiments are held by several philosophers, including Pliny the Younger and Nietsche the Miserable Buzzkill. Even Buddha – for all his chubby jolliness – said: “Life is suffering.” I’d like to think he would have supported the Stormers had he not found enlightenment in the 6th century BC, and he would have resigned to their minimalistic approach to winning and found a strange sense of encouragement in it.
Perhaps the philosophers of yesteryear were more honest with themselves, or maybe back then the entry requirement to becoming a “thinker” wasn’t just owning a brain. Nowadays I can’t log on to Facebook without being told to follow my dreams and believe in myself while dancing like nobody’s watching. Or caring. The figurative toad-gobbling Seneca said that optimism is the source of our anger.
My crisis about not being allowed to kick for poles as a Springbok lock was resolved when I discovered John Eales, the Australian lock with a deadly accurate boot. Cue mindless optimism. I thought: crisis resolved; it’s only a matter of time before I make it. But in truth was only a matter of time before I got a no-arms shoulder charge from common sense along with some Korean-imported career counselling.
We believe we are in control of our destiny, and with that belief comes serious self-esteem problems, says modern-day philosopher/writer Alain de Botton. This is why the self-help sections in bookshops are getting fatter than their target audience. Hell, even Bear Grylls writes self-help books now. I know this because I bought one, thinking it would be full of practical advice like how to store urine in rattlesnake carcasses (nature’s Camelbaks). Instead it’s incredibly motivating. But not in a good way. Too many quotes about shooting for the moon and not enough about shooting eland with blow darts.
My soul doesn’t need chicken soup. It needs reminders that today’s forecast is mundane with a chance of kakness. Because that is how a lot of life can be. (Just ask anyone who has ever been to school or worked in a cubicle.) I didn’t learn this through quotes on single-serving sugar sachets, I learned this through sucking at rugby and supporting a team who sucks less – but sometimes only slightly – than I did.
My rugby career may have peaked when I was 12, but the sport continues to illuminate many aspects of life for me. Years of being friend-zoned by the Super Rugby trophy is a serial seminar on embracing failure, accepting probabilities and mastering the art of re-working post-match interview clichés.
It’s a regular reminder that in any competition the odds are against everyone, just as there are still over a million odds against me playing for the Springboks.
Our lifespans aren’t the highlights on the Supersport Blitz channel in the same way that relationships aren’t all high fives and heavy petting, and having an office job isn’t only about photocopying body parts. But every now and then, the stars align and the Stormers – my glorious team of underachievers – suddenly steamroll a team with a four-try bonus point to the soundtrack of the frenzied slurring of Hugh Bladen. Jean de Villiers will intercept the ball and plant it beneath the poles, Gio Aplon will glide through tacklers’ grasps like a scythe and the props – against all odds – will not knock the ball on. And the great Doc Craven looks down from the Great Jan Pickard Stand In The Sky and smiles. These are the moments that send me to my feet, screaming. These are the times when I remember why I love this game that has rewritten my perspectives, skewed my nose and made me cry in public. And in these moments, the aeons that preceded them suddenly seem worth it.
So, raise a (half-empty) glass to the outliers – those explosions of ectasy that burst out from unlikelihood and remind you why you put up with everything in between.
Speaking of the Stormers, I noticed that I am two centimetres taller than Gio Aplon. And I’m three years younger than he is. It’s only a matter of time before I make it.
By Ian McNaught Davis