Not a week goes by in professional sport without a reminder about what really matters in life. Ita Vaea's recent retirement and NRL player Kieran Foran public grabble with drug addiction are recent examples.
Yet it seems we've become desensitised to these stories - viewing them as distractions peppered around the usual fare of match reports and contract disputes. What does it really mean to suggest sport is "just a game"?
Less than a month after the 2014 Super Rugby final I found myself in Maastricht, a university city on the southern tip of the Netherlands. I had most certainly not ingested the entirely legal (in Maastricht that is) psychedelic compound, psilocybin - and I was definitely not in the midst of one of the most interesting days of my life.
As I sat on a park bench overlooking an ancient Dutch fortress it steadily dawned on me that rugby was just a game. Now, given the time and space to plumb the depths of my consciousness this may seem like a particularly trite discovery. But in my mind, on that day, rugby seemed to symbolise the power of stories and the extent to which the human mind can create meaning.
As a young boy growing up in South Africa I had rugby singed into my psyche. My heroes inhabited grainy black and white images and starred as the leading men of rugby folklore. I would pore over my fathers books and my grandfathers gigantic collection of well worn VHS tapes of various matches. Soon I began plotting to emulate the studded superheroes of South African rugby.
Rugby was my life. I would train before, during and after school hours and I would devour any and all books relating to rugby and conditioning. I was obsessed in a way that makes the world a small place. This fanatical mindset is harmonious with elite level performance and success soon followed. I mechanically climbed the rungs of junior sport before I was mature enough to question the ladder I was on. In doing so I inflated the importance of rugby until it was the central soundtrack to my life.
During my Dutch adventure I was given a rare opportunity to connect with the absurdity of what is commonly called ‘reality’. When the truth finally came bursting in I was presented with what seemed like a choice - face up to the possibility that I had wasted much of my life on a game, or push these thoughts aside and march through the existential dread.
In the aftermath of this breakthrough I lost all motivation for sport. I couldn’t force myself to take it seriously. “Is this it? ” I would ask. 13.8 billion years of astonishing events on a scale so grand it defies comprehension has given rise to what exactly? Apparently it’s allowed bits of talking meat spinning on a tiny wet globe to chuck an oval ball between themselves!
My impending insanity compelled me to consume enough chocolate to kill a small army. I showed up for pre season in horrendous shape and felt very much as though I was watching a movie of a life that wasn’t mine. Surely my fellow primates could see how silly this all was. Surely all the furrowed brows and stressed faces of the administrators and coaches was a cover, surely these people understood the deeper reality, the grand elephant in every room, the impossible absurdity of it all. Perhaps not.
From time to time I will meet someone who has escaped the bubble to embrace their insignificance & the freedom this provides. People who have stood outside looking in are rarely fooled twice, they know that the game doesn't end with the final whistle. For these men and women “it’s just a game” is more than a platitude, it’s a perspective that transcends sport and sheds light on the beautiful struggle to create meaning in a meaningless universe.
Perhaps solace is found in the knowledge that the void can only be filled by us, by acknowledging that meaning isn't out there so much as it resides within. From this vantage point Rugby is a canvas as good as any other.
The consequence of seeing rugby from this perspective made the final year of my career the most enjoyable of all. I was able to detach from the outcomes of matches and immerse myself in the nameless moments that make life as a professional athlete truly special.
Friendships, camaraderie, all the cliches one could bring to mind, they exist in spades and are wonderful ways to learn about people and life.
Whenever I find myself disproportionately concerned with some passing trivially I remember to detach, zoom-out and connect with the large mystery called life. I'm forever grateful for the role rugby played in shaping this lens through which I see the world.
Clyde Rathbone captained South Africa to a Junior Rugby World Cup in 2002 before immigrating to Australia, playing 73 matches with the ACT Brumbies and 26 for the Wallabies. He is co-founder technology of Karma.wiki
The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ARU.