D'you feel unlucky?
I’d been to Old Dunstonian’s only once before Saturday, but it feels an unlucky place to me. That was six years ago and my son Tom was playing for Medway RFC’s under-fourteens, who were then one of the top three sides in Kent at that age group.
Old Dunstonian’s had only one youth side, which had defected en masse from the county’s top side Blackheath, and they beat us “in controversial circumstances” as they say in Euphemismia.
So I wasn’t looking forward to our second trip to Old Dunstonian. It’s a barely accessible club hidden in the Beckenham suburbs that are not only leafy but rich. The club is at the end of St Dunstan’s Lane, a long eight-feet wide lane bounded by seven-feet high walls and fences protecting lush residences either side, and with no passing places. We arrived just as a cavalcade of big black 4x4s was leaving and after three attempts at getting in and having to reverse back into the main road, we gave up in a fusillade of profanity, parked in a side street and walked.
Considering the high density of off-road monster trucks that had issued from the club’s mouth, I put on my big fat walking boots expecting a sweaty trek over hill, dale, swamp and mango grove, but the walk turned out to be pure tarmac and flatter than Chelsea. Odd, that.
I sat comfortably in the clubhouse with the friendly bar staff tending my every need while the lads I’d come to watch and photograph, the Medway senior second team or “Extra First XV” as they are called, ran around on the pitch trying to warm up in searing five degree heat and refreshing drizzle. Kick-off was at 2:30, so at at 2:29:45 I rose reluctantly, picked up my heavy backpack of gear (which I would normally leave in the car - damn that narrow lane) and walked over to the gorgeously lush pitch.
The weather had decided that a steady downpour carried on a chilly breeze would be the most dispiriting conditions it could manage for watching rugby, so I took out my secondhand 1D3 with the 100-400mm lens attached and once again hoped the weather-sealing was all that was claimed, while also sticking the whole rig inside my fleece whenever there was a break in play. Tom remarked later that it was quite cool to watch me “draw my gun from under my jacket and shoot” in one smooth movement, like James Bond firing a concealed blowpipe missile launcher. Bear in mind that a 1D3 carrying that lens is nearly two feet long with a four-inch diameter. Personally I think he was taking the mick, and in any case all it resulted in was a high proportion of blurred images, which is definitely not cool.
The camera was all set up and ready to go before I left home of course, so I switched on, enjoying the instant start up, and blimey here was Tom right in front of me scoring his first try for ages and I’m raising the viewfinder to my eye to capture the glory when I discover there’s no card in the camera. I confessed immediately to Tom that I missed his try and suffered his curses as good-naturedly as ever.
Medway scored again soon after but then decided the job was done after ten minutes and went to sleep. Then, for a dad, came one of those unpleasant experiences when your son goes down and stays down, and the referee has a glance and takes the unusual step of stopping the game for the injury rather than waiting for a break in play, and you’re looking at the still, prone figure through your long lens for signs of life. But on this occasion no-one in the small crowd gathered round him seems too alarmed, and no-one is on the phone, so probably an ambulance isn’t needed, and eventually he sits up and is then carried off by unsympathetic teammates grinning at the misfortunes of others, as they do. Quite right too.
Coming off the wing on the crash ball, Tom was hit by two players simultaneously, one high and one low, and when they all came to earth someone’s knee speared into Tom’s lower thigh just above the right knee with all his weight behind it. We watched interestedly as his leg swelled to twice it’s normal width, then helped him to the changing room, hoping he’d still be able to get his trousers on, and reflecting that had it been three inches lower it might well have shattered his knee. As it was he was walking about 15 minutes later, albeit with a heavy limp intended to attract some kind of sympathy and failing completely.
When I got back Medway were down by 10 or 12 and looking ragged. Things worsened in the second half as Old Dunstonian’s lead steadily extended until a late rally by Medway put some respectability back on the scoreline. Dave Gwilliam had come off the bench and added some purpose and penetration to the back line, scoring a try that was remarkable in its way, and a testament to all those good things that keep people watching and playing sport: determination, athleticism, strength of mind and body, never say die spirit etc etc. You see him here two metres short of the tryline just after crashing into the opposition line, lifted into the air by two defenders and with the way blocked by a third covering defender and you have to ask how, a second or two later, he is over the line and scoring the try. It’s kind of magical, in its way.
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