On a midweek evening in November 2007 I went to Sandy Park with a couple of friends to watch a match between the Exeter Chiefs’ second team and Oxford University, who were preparing for the Varsity match.
Joe Roff, a man who had been at the centre of the Australian side for years and years, was in the Oxford team.
I don’t usually write about rugby here, but I spend a lot of my time during the English winter watching the game, and occasionally you come across something which you not only enjoy, but which makes you think a bit more about the wider resonances and parallels of what you’ve seen.
Last night I had the pleasure of watching Joe Roff, 86 Australian caps and two World Cup finals behind him, play for Oxford University against the second team of my local club, the Exeter Chiefs. Unsurprisingly he excelled, while at the same time gliding through the game with the type of effortless poise and command that not only signifies a gifted sportsman but also one playing in a game far below the level to which he’s accustomed.
It’s hard to come across such experiences in cricket. No international in my experience has retired at 29 and gone back to university as Roff has, so you can only think of the times you managed to see one of the game’s more gifted batsmen ply their trade against an attack that simply couldn’t touch them. My most penetrating memories revolve around Lara at Trent Bridge in 1995, and, more vividly, a fifty by Darren Lehmann at Taunton when he looked as if he could have humiliated the Somerset bowlers while batting with a stump and only got himself out when it all became a little too easy.
At the end of the first half there was the type of exchange between players which is commonplace at any level of the game – a bit of grappling, a few random and harmless punches, a release for surplus aggression. Roff stood well away from it and trotted off, smiling to himself. He’d seen it all before. He’d been to places his compatriots and opponents could only dream of going, where the stakes are overwhelmingly high and the blows really hurt.
Those of us who spend our time on the sidelines, or vainly trying to emulate the actions and experiences of our heroes, can never really go there either. The best we can do is to see those places through their eyes and wonder at what it might be like.
Different Shades of Green, 6th November 2007