Short story: The weirdos of the local rugby club, by Airana Ngarewa
“Only so many times you can be called a dumb Maari”: anatomy of a First XV
#1 is built like a 40-year-old fridge; a Fisher & Paykel body with a head attached. One eye swollen, jaw all dressed in scars, a floral tea towel strapped down with duct tape doing the work of a scrum cap. His missus took the first aid kit to their kids’ camp. Never mind his ears are already cauliflowered. It was all part of the pre-game ritual now, I suppose. And the team is on a two-game winning streak. First one in eight seasons. No bloke meant to risk upsetting the God of over 35s regional Rugby tournaments. He is a fickle cunt, the boys reckoned – and they are for the most part still boys after all.
#2 is his oldest nephew, only 17, a decade and a half below the age cap but it is what it is. Ten years of tournament play has made the rules more a suggestion than anything. What read No head high tackles really meant pause the clock two minutes for a letter punch up then resume play. Ref doesn’t even carry cards anymore. Fella knows he’s little more than an accessory to the game, a green-copper ring on the third finger of the left hand.
Shut the fuck up and blow the whistle, Gary?
#3 is Hine, the manager of the local pub; a true-blue Taranaki girl, short and squat with legs that could crush a man. And they have more than once. She’s the only one on the team with any real experience. Used to rep the country in sevens. An obvious pick for captain. Nominated herself and that was that. The boys knew better than to argue. Best case, she wrung you out with her thunder thighs; worst case, she cut you off… and you were left sipping water with #4 and #5.
They’re a pair of brothers from Pakistan. 125kg combined and as straight as they come. Legendary cricket players apparently (too bad the local club burned down) and damn good teachers. Picked up their first rugby ball two years back, getting to know their students, and have been killing it since. Who could’ve guessed the best background for the savage game was a master’s degree in physics?
“Bodies built for the wing,” Hine loves to say, “but a brain built for the breakdown.”
No wonder the team is on its first winning streak.
The most interesting thing about #6 is his dad. Fella hasn’t missed a game in years. Koro Quad the team call him. Home or away, man is always there on his infamous ATV, red as the fields are water-logged, following the play of the ball on the side-line, tearing up the grass as he goes, swearing up a storm. “Pass the fucking ball, you drongo; I had my stroke in 89 and still got faster feet than you.” Old man’s roasts are so good full-grown men are made to weep from laughter. Which is where he earned his second name, Sun Tzu: no better time to run a trick play than when the opposition is half-blind from the tears in their eyes. Bastard is as clever as he is cur.
#7 is a drunk. Pure and simple. Man drinks piss like a smoker smokes smokes. Ain’t no coincidence either. Soon as they changed the pictures on cigarettes, one traded one addiction for another. “Can’t stand the look of that shit. Rotten teeth and eyeballs. Better just to have a beer during smoko. Shit tastes better, smells better, and by lunchtime, you’ve already forgotten you’ve to get up at 6am tomorrow and do it all again.” If the brothers from Pakistan had ever considered drinking, they sure didn’t anymore. #7 was a public service announcement disguised as a man. Don’t drink and definitely don’t sing too loud the wonders of capitalism. If addiction is genetic then so is one’s weakness to the abundance of piss ads that dress the posts and the stands and the uniforms and everything else even only sort of connected to the game of rugby. What chance did a man of his make ever really have?
#8 is the pocket rocket. Man is 5’2” built like Mike Tyson with a pace like Tyson Gay. If his head was proportionate to his body, he would be unstoppable. Unfortunately, his head was meant for a man twice his size. And so, poor fella can only run straight. He even thinks about cutting an angle and his whole shit gets out of whack, body comes tumbling to the ground like a miniature Tower of Babel. And yet, he’s still the team’s top scorer. Cpt Hat-trick he’s called. Turns out, getting ’round the hips of a man that short and wide is practically impossible. The Pakistani brothers have done the math to prove it.
“It’s like trying to hit a bullseye with a bowling ball,” they concluded.
And they weren’t exaggerating much.
The halfback is 50 years old and fresh out of prison. Old man got nine months for driving with no license. Can drive as well as anyone, just can’t hardly read. School in his day was a hellscape for his kind. The girls were clever enough to fly under the radar, knew what to say and when. By the time these ones left, they knew the system inside and out. Have spent their adult lives, tearing that shit down and building it back up again. The boys though, they dropped out. Only so many times you can be called a dumb Maari before the burning in your hands gets the better of you. After that, life was no more just than school was. Least they had their rugby though. About the only place their worth was recognized.
#10 has a body like melted ice cream and forearms like Popeye. Dude was born and raised on the farm, his high school an education in dusk to dawn workdays and his university an education in vapes. No one has ever known a country boy so schooled in the ways of the hipster. Dude spends his off-season touring New Zealand on his niftyfifty, his man bun blowing in the wind. Man is equal parts farm-boy, Portlander and middle-aged Vespa-driving Italian. Where his Danish heritage fits in the mix, I’ve no idea.
#11… well no one knows a great deal about #11. Man moved into town a year ago and is yet to speak a full sentence. Most that could be said is he fits right in. Wears his jeans with his gumboots. Check. Wears the classic puke-green Ridgeline t-shirt regardless of the weather. Check. Has more hair on his chest than his head. Check. Man is pretty much the archetype of the boys ’round here.
The inside center has a big fat fist on the side of his face. The signs of a youth misspent. Fella is a health fanatic now, posting inspirational quotes on the gram daily, running boot camps for the kids outside and bodybuilding workshops for the ones locked up. The Māori hulk they call him. Or when he’s not ’round, Frankenstein. His head so small compared to his body, the whanau on the side-line can’t help but note it would better fit the pocket rocket and vice versa. No one would dare say it to his face. Some habits die hard.
Old man on his outside is more of the same. Different gang patch on a different side of his face. Another former youth in desperate want of a community. People who look like him, people who share his values, people he knows won’t judge the way his tongue turns Ts to Ds and whole sentences to single words.
#14 looks the love child of a drunk god and a moa. His legs all the way up to his armpits. The old people did say ol’ Tane was a bit loose. The trees and the birds, yep, his children. Those stars, yep, those too. Rumor has it, that maker of mankind even hooked up with his own daughter. Only thing more disturbing than that story is #14’s body. Every time I see him I spew in my mouth a little. He really is just that damn ugly.
And speaking of me, I wear the #15, deep in the backfield. You’ll know me by the fierce white shine of my chicken legs and the way I cower under the high ball. Lucky, the knees of all the boys ’round here are shot so a high ball is as rare as a full head of hair. Truth is: I can’t play for shit. Only reason the boys keep me ’round is ’cause I’m good for a laugh. Oh, and I said I’d write this story for ’em.
Well, here it is. You’re all famous officially. Now what one of you donuts are gonna buy me the first fucken drink?
Hachette will be publishing Airana Ngarewa’s debut novel in 2023.
Next week’s short story: “Sex Thoughts between 1am and 2am 26/08/21” by Emma Sidnam.