Returning to Rugby at 37 Years Old

by Nick McCashin

There was a familiar feel, sound and smell when walking into the rugby changing room after being absent for nearly two years. I made a couple of cameo appearances off the bench two years ago, so it is more like four years away from the game. I had never been in this particular changing room but immediately felt comfortable. I lifted a new pair of Copa Mundial Adidas boots and a new mouthguard out of my old bag to place down alongside black electrical tape. Old superstitions kept the same. The right-playing sock on first. Then the left sock. With a dry and hard track for the game, the vaseline was ready to take the edge off the impending grass-burn areas of the knees, hips, elbows and wrists. Last-minute preparations and we were out for the warm-up.

A few months ago, I decided to return to rugby, at the ripe old age of 37. Midlife crisis? I don’t know. It had been on my mind to have one last season. The season would kick off two months before my 38th birthday. In my own mind, there was little doubt I could do a job and pull the strings from flyhalf but would that translate on the pitch? Perhaps the return to rugby was an effort to achieve that final ah-ha moment that never came. Or prove to myself and others I still had it? Mostly I missed the team environment and wanted to meet a few new people. Even if it was a return for one game, I then had an opportunity to do what the pros do and take that photo of my boots hanging up. For Instagram or at least make an official announcement to my three biggest fans, my wife and two sons. Posts we see every day!

It was nice to get back out there. The game fitness was dreadful but knocking over a few young lads twenty years younger than me felt good. With thirty-three years of rugby under my belt, little had changed with the opposing hooker kicking me off the ball. I made a mental note and did nothing. I was now on the hunt for an opportunity to square things up. I like to think I got a good one on him down the sideline barreling him into touch with a marginally legal wrap, no-arms tackle. Looking back over the game and subsequent training, I had missed the banter. As a newbie to the team, I had not formed those connections with other players. So I watched and listened to it. Like any rugby team, there was a healthy dose of banter directed at other players. After a few years of social isolation, it still felt better to be in a new group than none. Dad and work life have also contributed to the lack of team sports and social interaction. We have every intention of staying involved or even keeping up our fitness. The pressures of life as a father and the joy of time with the little ones often outweigh everything else. While I only contributed a few minutes off the bench, it was enough to give me that much-needed release from the frustrations of the pandemic and the more recent grind of day-to-day work from home.

I was well off the pace and made too many tackles to contribute to the attack. I was undecided if I wanted to continue. I couldn’t put my finger on why I had neither strong feelings to play or to stop. Perhaps it was that all-important game fitness that would help improve the enjoyment. The nice thing about returning to the game is that the brain and body still know what to do. Perhaps I need to take my coaching advice onboard and leave the competitive rucks that are not worth fighting. Also, stop playing like a flanker and making too many tackles. That might help me restore a bit of energy for when I need it.

In recent years I have applied my energy to coaching. The game was a reminder that the experience is different when you are a player vs a coach. There is this underlying hope you are coaching well enough to improve players and ultimately win through your work off the field. As a player, there is an underlying collective to work together. We play hard as a unit and win together. Pure joy comes from directly impacting the game physically and tactically as opposed to tactical advice as a coach. Often a team with less skill can overcome a star-studded team with nothing more than pure grit and a desire to win. The connection between player and player is slightly different from player to coach. That beer after the game as a player seems much more worth it.

Once my nickname at university was “wheels”. After years of after-match beers, coaching and adapting to Ultra Running, I am not sure the wheels are still there. Noticeably after making a line break. I would back myself to step or run around the fullback. I tried to put my foot down and run around the fullback. Unfortunately, there was no change of pace or response from the legs. The feedback was just a weird sensation in both my quadriceps. It gave me an early indication to continue what looked like running on a treadmill.

Was I conditioned for rugby after coaching? Yes, I think so. Training for several Ultra Marathons has given me a good aerobic base. 8 to 10 weeks before playing rugby, I made sure I completed a good block of rugby specific fitness. Strength and conditioning work to prepare the body for play. Loads of mobility work across the last few years to help lubricate the joints, strengthen old injuries and improve my tolerance of in-game knocks. I was surprised that I was much fitter and more mobile than some of the younger players. Some were in horrible physical condition for their age. Some players have sure had a tough paper run. I am hoping that work will pay dividends later in the season. Or at least help in mitigating the risk of injury. After a few games, the body is still holding together. The recovery time has been much longer. Maybe due to the absence from rugby or just my age. The knocks seem to last much longer than Sunday morning. I could recover much faster. Post-game I focus on recovery strategies and long into the week to iron out the tweaks.

Hammies tweaking, quadriceps pulling, knee shrieking and head buzzing. Perhaps the body is telling me the juice is not worth the squeeze? The pain in the joints and muscles is weirdly a reminder that I am alive. It is a familiar feeling for me after a few years of punishment in the professional scene. With concussion at the forefront of the rugby news, it has me in two minds about whether to continue or not. Over my career, I have had several impacts to the head, concussions, delayed concussions and headaches. I am hoping World rugby would approve a device like Hit Impact. I could use it in games to monitor future impacts. I think it is a few years away from amateur rugby. By the time it is approved to use in games, I will have done that Instagram post. It is nice to see the subject of concussion taken much more seriously. Those my age have likely seen some friends play on after being knocked out. One more concussion will be the end of the season for me. I know it’s not a midlife crisis but rather an easy avenue to meet new people in the area I recently moved to and carve out some time for myself. It is my comfortable default environment outside of being a business owner, father and husband.

As my game fitness improves with more regular training and the body adjusts to the impacts, the games are now more enjoyable. One highlight for me as a father is that my two sons are of the age that they can see me play and possibly remember. It may not be that great a performance but setting an example as a father and having a healthy lifestyle ranks highly for the things I want to teach them. If they play rugby or choose not to, I do not mind. There are a lot of things I can teach them to be good at the game. As a father, I will support them in whatever sport or non-sporting hobbies they choose. Secretly it might be nice to travel around the summer months with them, attending Tennis or Golf tournaments. The injuries are not as severe. The professional prize money is better and might help top up the retirement fund…

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