Saturday, 11th September. While the Union 60 team are in Jesteburg, the two injured players and this old duffer of a blogger take to the field as officials in the 1860 v Schwalbe match in Bremen. First impressions last and we look the business in our black, white and red jerseys. Boris on whistle again, Thomas and me on the lines. You’d never have guessed looking at me that I’d crawled out of bed just over an hour before the kick-off after partying all of Friday night. Anyway, rugby seems to have that sobering effect, and I was no exception to that phenomenon.
I managed to get a coffee into me before leaving home, which was pretty much the only energy I had for the duration of the game. Schwalbe, I’ll remind you, are the team that beat Union 60 in Hannover the previous weekend. A large, physical team, with a remarkably fast winger (and a couple of overly aggressive forwards) and a cross-eyed hooker who was still throwing in crooked lineouts and doing his team no favours five or ten metres out from 1860’s line. 1860 are no pushovers themselves with a collection of large forwards and backs, all of them runners. Funny how they still managed to lose so comprehensively in their first game just six days previously. Well, they made up for it in a fast, physical game that saw one of the best defensive tackles I have seen outside of the professional game. The flying Schwalbe winger ran an exceptional 20-30 metres and was just short of a certain try-scoring opportunity when a full-back in kamikaze mode came in hard and crunched him about three metres into touch. I was just glad that I wasn’t able to keep up with him or I would have been caught up in that particular car-wreck…..
1860 came out with a comprehensive four tries to two win and I was thankful to finally tuck into some wurst and beer and chill out for a while. About an hour later the news came in that Union 60 had won against Jesterburg 25-22 with 14 men! Two tries to our American flanker of inderterminate heritage, Michael, who took a bit of the shine off his performance by spending 10 in the sin-bin. Happily, it didn’t affect the overall result and Jesteburg had one of their own sent off for 10, too, alleviating any possibility of two consecutive defeats for Union.
Our boys were informed, once off the train, to meet at Eisen and then move on to Hegarty’s for the Rugby Bremen joint celebration, and I grimaced at the thought of punishing my liver for the second night in a row. Still, I couldn’t let the team down so I showed up for a few, and then a few more, and then a few more and, well, then it’s too late to go so, being the trooper I am I stayed the distance. While Union 60 are quaffing beers in the traditional rugby manner, the lads from 1860 are getting out of it and, inevitably, things get pretty wild. I won’t describe what happened on a main street in downtown Bremen (I don’t need to, I made a movie – but I can’t share it as impressionable children and other assorted minors are known to read my blog) but take my word for it, you really don’t want to know. Grown men saw it live and baulked.
Once things quietened down somewhat, and I was quite enjoying my umpteenth beer, Boris bid his farewells and said he’d see me tomorrow for the ladies’ game. Sure, I said, I was looking forward to taking some good photos. He kind of smiled awkwardly and reminded me that I was the referee. My innards melted. I had completely forgotten. And while a doomed expression crossed my face my company partook in what they call in these here parts schadenfreude. Suddenly, my appetite for beer disappeared and I felt it might be better if I went home myself and got some sleep (and had a quick scan over the laws) before the game the next day. Luckily I live a straight line away from the pub so, closing one eye, I did a bee-line along Vor den Steintor, and got in at the healthy hour of 11.30 at night.
Sunday, 12th September. I wake up in a seated position, my legs dead from lack of bloodflow. How I fell asleep on the toilet I can’t remember. I looked at my watch. 7am. Eight hours until kick-off. Great. But I still feel drunk. God knows when the hangover will kick-in. I make it back to bed and crash out. I wake up and it’s still dark out. Hmm.. Must still be night. I look at my watch. 12.30. Shit! I’ll never be ready on time. Then I remember Boris’s words that he will step in if I don’t want to do this. Hell, no, that’s the pussy’s way out. I’m motivated. I WANT to do this. Another coffee, a hot shower, and I’m ready. 2pm. Feeling pretty good. I pull on my kit, decide to wear the Australian flanker jersey to stand out on the pitch, and then for some reason I sit down, switch on my computer and start to check Facebook and my email. I must still be out of it because while I’m reading about all the ladies making their way to the game I’m about to referee, I’m calmly sitting like it’s a normal Sunday afternoon. I finally decide that it’s maybe best I leave and cycle the ten minutes to the pitch. It’s drizzling a little but still warm so the conditions for playing are great. I needn’t have worried about being late, though. St. Pauli have yet to arrive from Hamburg, and our ladies are still warming up, doing some nice drills and passing practice out on the pitch. I must still be out of it as I am not the slightest bit nervous. Some of the lads have turned out so I chew the fat with them and then I turn to Arne and Boris (my two touch judges) and we go through our routines for the game. Three thirds of 20 minutes each, non-contested scrums, ten players to a team, 15s rules. Simple.
St. Pauli arrive looking damned smart and eager. I brief the two captains that I’m using English (because even if I use German I’ll keep slipping back into the terms I know), and we get ready to start. First problem. The groundsman, in his infinite wisdom, has marked out the pitch the night before and the overnight rain has washed away all of the lines. It takes me a few minutes to find the very faded centreline (not for the only time in the game), and Union 60 ladies then get us kicked-off. My first 20 minutes are not the best, to be honest, and some of my decisions confound even me, but reffing is HARD! At least I’m keeping out of everybody’s way, and keeping things smooth. Second twenty minutes takes a while to get going again. I’ve given the teams their five minutes but the coaches are abusing it to give longer team talks, and they take their time coming back for the restart. I can’t blame them. The ground is starting to break up and running is becoming a chore. Already some of the ladies are looking breathless.
The second twenty starts well and the game is becoming more fluent with some jinky runs and good play from both sides but it’s St. Pauli who are running in the tries and Union 60 are defending desperately. And then something happens that shows a unique divide between ladies and gents rugby. A player knocks-on and I give a scrum to St. Pauli. The front rows form and I’m about to give the commands when, all of a sudden, the six ladies start having a chat between themselves. ‘Ladies?’. Natter, natter. ‘Er, ladies?’. Natter, natter. ‘LADIES!’ Natter, natter, giggle, giggle. A sharp blow on my whistle and I have their attention. ‘Ladies, we have this game to play. Crouch, touch……’.
Final 20 minutes and I’m running around like I’m ten years younger. Tons of energy, not missing much, I’m in my element. I’m almost sorry it’s coming to and end now I’m into my flow. I can’t say the same for the ladies. They are mud-streaked, panting, cheeks flushed pink from exertion, muscles bruised, and sinews stretched but still giving their all. Last minute and St. Pauli kick a ball into the 22 and chase. Lena, playing at full-back runs to cover it but it’s too far forward to catch and she gets a bad bounce, the ball falling nicely for the onrushing attacker who scoops it up and runs it in for the final score of the match. ‘How much longer?’ I’m asked as the kicker lines up the conversion. ‘This is the last action of the game.’ The kick hits the bar and drops back. Union pick-up and run towards the centre and I blow for full-time. They look surprised but I clarify that the conversion was the last action. They look crestfallen.
The two teams then line up facing each other and I discover another unexpected custom. I must deliver the scores to the team and also make some comments about the game. I congratulate both teams for a good game, give some cliche about rugby being the big winner on the day and make some excruciating joke about invisible lines before deciding that it would be best to round it off by saying something stupid about barbecue and beer that gets a cheap laugh. I look at a large divot in the ground and wonder if it is large enough to crawl into.
Both captains address the other teams, make some (rather flattering) compliments in my direction before ending with the mandatory team yell at each other. I am just getting ready to walk off to the clubhouse when someone suddenly runs at me from behind the line with a bucket of water (which I realise was used for washing wounds and rinsing gum guards) and dumps it full over me. My first game as ref in Germany. I have been baptised. I have mixed emotions….
While everyone tucks into the barbecue, Arne, Boris and I grab a few beers and post-mortem over the officiating in the bizarre surroundings of a kiddie rollerskating competition. We rejoin the rest for some food and I realise that it’s six in the evening and this is the first food I’ve eaten all day. I get an energy rush that leaves me refreshed and revitalised. I am (not unusually) one of the last there, and those left decide to finish the night with a few more beers at the local bar. I get home just after midnight and collapse exhausted in pretty much the same state I’ve been in all weekend (barring the match time).
Monday morning, 13th September. Can’t feel my legs. That’ll teach me not to warm up and to warm down (not to mention break in my boots). I’ve woken up twice during the night with the pain. I crawl out of bed and into work. Having a look at Facebook I see that most of the ladies are in the same shape as me (but they were actually playing, John…). Then I remember reading somewhere that women feel twice as much pain as men and then I sit and look back over the game and think: ‘Respect, ladies. Respect.’