In 1997, the last year of my journalism degree, my class took a field trip during which we played a game of touch completely dominated by me. I was a visual-creative force. When I held the ball I didn't see space so much as felt it. The gap between mind and body evaporated, or fused.
I was shocked, therefore, when, in conversation with friends some weeks later, they recalled a different game - one marked not by my dominance, but their own. My initial response was scorn, followed by denial, but the more I thought about it, the more shaken I was. I know I wasn't the only one feeling this way because, nearly 25 years later, living on three different continents, the dispute is still a live topic of conversation among us.
I had always felt drawn to the rugby ball and had dreamed of being an All Black, of course, but I had been forced to retire from competitive rugby at the age of 14, due to being a nerd, and from that point on my dreams were mostly gone. At school, I still played and dominated lunchtime games of touch with other nerds but I hadn't touched a ball for four or five years leading up to that 1997 field trip - and I've hardly touched one since.
But I still feel the longing sometimes and so it was earlier this week, during a promotional exercise for Three's just-launched second season of reality show 2nd Chance Charlie, for which media personalities, influencers and I were invited to preview the show and undertake a training session with co-host All Black legend Stephen Donald. I was surprised by the intensity of the thrill I felt walking out on to the field at Ponsonby, the city's most famous rugby club, the home of many of my childhood heroes - Joe Stanley, Peter Fatialofa, Craig Innes, Mark Brooke-Cowden. Va'aiga Tuigamala - and seeing a bag of balls, just sitting there: pure, latent possibility. I was drawn to them, compulsively and, on picking one up, I felt the familiar thrill, and accompanying sadness - the disappointment that I had let this feeling disappear from my life. I bounced the ball. It hit the grass limply and dribbled away from me. I picked it up and bounced it again. Again I failed to catch it. I didn't try a third time.
2nd Chance Charlie follows five gifted rugby players who missed their chance at the big time first time around and are now hoping for their "second chance". Donald, Liam Messam and Joe Naufahu put them through six weeks of tests, exercises and trainings, at the end of which one of them will be selected to get more training, exercises and tests, in the hopes of making it to Super Rugby, which, if we're honest, they probably won't. When I asked about the winner of last year's first season - James Cockburn - there was silence, followed by blank looks, followed by prevarication. Naufahu says the show is less about the rugby and more about the stories, although the Charlies weren't there, so I didn't get to ask if they felt the same way.
Of the six media/influencers who turned up for the training, I believe I was the oldest, although possibly not much older than the breakfast radio host or the comedian/current affairs reporter. I was also the scrawniest, although probably not much scrawnier than the comedian/current affairs reporter or the sports reporter/tennis ace.
Donald was sick, so the session was run by Naufahu, a former schoolboy star at Auckland Grammar who went on to play for New Zealand under-19s and 21s, Canterbury, Southland, Leicester and Glasgow, before his career was wrecked by knee injuries and he had to retire, aged 25. Now he runs a gym, is a professional actor, a father and a host of 2nd Chance Charlie. He's made a good life for himself outside of rugby, but he too knows the power of the ball in his hands.
We started with a fitness test, then did some drills - passing and evasion type stuff. It was fine and not unenjoyable but what I really wanted was to play, to feel the excitement of the ball in hand, to have the opportunity to create something unique, to feel that evaporation of the space between mind and body, to make magic, to validate my undernourished sense of self and fill whatever hole has been created in my life by the things my parents did wrong when I was young.
And then, after an hour or so, Naufahu said "We're going to finish with a game of touch" and tossed me the ball and I felt all its power flow through me. As I threw the first pass and ran after it, I slipped into that long-ago feeling, which I would describe as "great".
It was a bright, crisp morning in Auckland, the ground dew-free and perfect for open, incisive touch rugby. On my team were the fitness influencer and breakfast radio host and it was immediately obvious they could play. We attacked with width and movement, and our defensive formation was all-but-impenetrable. There was that feeling, presumably biological, of oneness, of being a part of something bigger and more capable than oneself, which, for an egoist, is surprisingly powerful and probably therapeutic.
The game was only a minute or so old when I picked up the ball in midfield. My marker was closing in quickly and the fitness influencer was well-marked on my right. The third defender was bearing down angularly on me from the left, leaving the breakfast radio host unmarked outside her, but with the passing lane blocked off. Two sets of defensive hands were almost upon me. I was required to act.
Recalling the play in this way, it sounds logical and systematic, which of course it isn't and can't be, which is a big part of the attraction of the game. In such a high-pressure, fast-moving situation, one's neurotic and ruminative mind is necessarily suppressed and replaced by something far healthier.
I threw a hard topspin spiral over the defender's head. Her hands instinctively went up, but it cleared them by an infinitesimal distance, looping and dropping perfectly into the hands of the breakfast radio host, who ran to the line, unchallenged, for the first try.
I felt the energy of the ball's perfect arc in my body, like an expression of gratitude. Naufahu felt it too. He praised me, with something like awe in his voice, and I felt his tone as truth. He owns a gym and encouragement is his thing, but I am a communications professional and I know the difference between the motivational sloganeering of the modern fitness industry and the insight of an elite coach.
I can remember, in my first year or two at primary school, running across the front of the library and leaping up on to the outdoor stage, running across the stage, leaping off the other side and carrying on at full speed, expecting my raw pace and agility to be spotted, anticipating the awe of the teachers and older kids, and whatever glories and opportunities that might bring with it, although I knew not what those might be. I could feel their eyes on me, even though they weren't. And so, unfortunately, has my life continued. Aged 44, I had finally been noticed.
scored a soft try, then the opposition scored a try by cheating, then Naufahu said, "Next try wins," even though we held an unbeatable lead. We rucked it up, and I found myself with the ball in almost identical field position to that from which I had created our first try. Defenders were closing from everywhere, but I saw - felt - a wrinkle in the line and accelerated to a place from which I was able to slide a perfect spiral pass through a tiny window to the breakfast radio host, who caught it, ran a few metres unchallenged, and scored the winning try.
Of course I can't say for sure that this description, or any of the preceding descriptions, are completely accurate. Five people moved in certain ways, for reasons neither I nor they could have predicted, and in reacting to their decisions I made equally unpredictable decisions, and so on: an infinite regression of decisions, ending in either glory or disaster, and in this case glory. The thrill is in the mystery, the unpredictability, the fact that everything is possible.
The way Naufahu said my name at the end of the game, it was as if it was the source of all pleasure. The breakfast radio host began calling me "Beauden", then "Beaudy". Naufahu named me player of the day. "I think we discovered a real talent here in Greg," he told The Project's Tony Lyall on camera, in a soundbite that will almost certainly not make the final edit.
Afterwards, we formed a huddle. I had my hand on Naufahu's shoulder. It was broad and sprawling, like a mountain range. If it wasn't so rock-hard, it would have been a perfectly adequate place for a couple to clamber up with a basket and bottle of wine for a picnic lunch. He also had great hair and skin, and was overall very physically attractive, as well as just a super-nice guy. If it sounds like I loved him, that's because I did. I felt the thrill of oneness: with Naufahu, my team, with the game, with the world, and I can't say for sure how much of that was down to the praise.
2nd Chance Charlie screens on Three at 9.30pm on Thursdays and is available to stream on ThreeNow.