Watching rugby in winter

The Touch Judge

                                                                                                                                                Apple Tree Cottage


                                                                                                                                                11 October 1978

Harry was often, no, ‘often’ is not the right word, he was always to be seen running up and down the touch line in the rugby match on Saturdays, his eyes following the game earnestly.  Come rain or wind or snow he was touch judge for the club on Saturday after Saturday, year after year. When he puffed too much to run up and down the line for the one and a half hours’ hours of the match, he was demoted to sponge carrier.  Whenever a player was injured, Harry would run across the field, a bucket of water in one hand, a sponge in the other, his red cheeks blowing.  He was an unlikely angel ministering to the fallen, and yet oddly enough his treatment always worked.  A quick dab of the sponge of cold water over the face and down the back of the neck and the player was up once more, a little groggy maybe but able to carry on. Then Harry would run back to his station on the touch line and wait for the next emergency.  Some of the lads in the junior team used to play a sort of game on him, and they would drop down with cramp or a knock or a sprain or something else similarly faked, in the corner of the field diametrically opposite to where he was waiting with his bucket.  Off he would set across the pitch, at a slow trot, to a clap from the crowd which never seemed to ruffle him.  I can always remember him as part of the scene on Saturdays.  He was always there, just as the goalposts were always there.

He had played, of course, in his youth, in the front row of the scrum, even once or twice he had been picked for the first team, but that was all so long ago that none of us remembered, and no one ever bothered to ask him about it.  The younger players were not interested.

Year after year went by with the usual victories and defeats, with good teams and bad teams.  Then, at the start of one season he didn’t appear.  I had been away that summer, but I walked down to the rugby field to watch the first match. Something was different, and then I realised that Harry was missing, and I asked a friend of mine what had happened.  I was told that he had died.  It had been sudden, a heart attack. In August it was, just before training started again. Some of the junior team had gone to the funeral, and the first team captain, but few others.  “Most of us were away on holiday, you see”, said my friend.  Various people took over the jobs that he used to do in the club, and he was greatly missed at first.  A hundred things that used to get done, nobody quite knew how, now needed some other volunteer.  Things were not in the right place at the right time, as they always had been.  But the longest memories are short in a sports club, and soon all the talk was of a new place kicker who was due to arrive in November.

But something is different now.  Of course, the goalposts look shorter, and the stand looks smaller now, as things always do when you leave and travel and come back home.  But Harry isn’t around.  Something of our youth has gone.  And he has gone, as one day, I suppose, we will all go.  We all move up the line. 

But I like to imagine, as we walk home after a match we have just watched, that he is looking down on the efforts of our first XV. I can hear him saying, ‘You did alright lads, you did alright, but the back row must move across the field quicker, you know.’

I expect that they have the game up there, and if so, they must need a touch judge.  I hope they appreciate him more than we did, because he is sure to be there, happily puffing as he runs up and down the line eternally, Saturday after Saturday.