It was 1998. I was (a fresh) 16 years old. And in for a shock.
I was named on the bench to play against Canterbury Secondary Schools 1st XV (rugby).
Most of the other guys on the field were 17 or 18 – about to finish school, including their star – Aaron Mauger (pictured below).
Everyone knew him. He was THE shit – part of the New Zealand Schools side at the time, and there was a strong chance I’d mark him when I came off the bench.
(*Two years later he would captain NZ U21 to a Junior World Cup and then onto the All Blacks the following year, to play close to 50 tests and become one of the best to wear the 12 jersey for NZ, in my opinion)
This was my first proper test against world class players.
On this day he was wreaking havoc. We were down by about 50 points. The coach calls me up with about 30 minutes to go.
“Mike, I want you to go on at 15 (fullback)”.
I HAVE NEVER PLAYED THERE. EVER.
I say “Sure.”
Clearly I had some confidence somewhere.
A few things happen at this point.
- I shit myself at the prospect of navigating the next 30 minutes in a totally unfamiliar position.
*For context – I played 10 – First Five my ENTIRE life from the age of 7.
- I enter the field and after a couple of handshakes from senior players I immediately pull one aside for a word:
“Bro, I’ve never played fullback before. There’s a good chance I’ll be out of position – if you see so, can you point me in the right direction?”
- Mauger keeps doing his thing, setting up tries and running in a couple past me.
Oh man, the step …
We end up going down heavily. I was like a cat with two tails – aimlessly all over the show.
I left the field feeling shit – out of my depth and shown up.
Luckily the whole team had rings run around them that day, and any personal failure I felt blended in with the group.
What happened next?
It was at this point that I could have sulked in failure – told myself I wasn’t good enough to be there.
I could have blamed the coach for putting me RIGHT IN THE DEEP END.
I could have sworn to NEVER play 15 again and go back to what I know.
Somehow this fresh 16 year old looked at what happened, he looked at that dude who seemed to have the ball on a string, and went – “What do I do to get there?”
So I went away and learned how to play 15.
I ended up playing probably half of my senior rugby at fullback, including playing and scoring a try against the 2003 Fijian World Cup side, and playing with and against a number of amazing humans.
I wasn’t quite Aaron Mauger standard, but I’ll take it.
I have never thought about this moment since until it popped into my head a few days ago. I’ve been pondering it ever since.
It forced me to reflect on a few things:
- Man, I kind of always had the audacity to have a crack. An inbuilt corner of confidence; “Put me in coach, I’ll figure it out.”
- We can feel out of our depth, have a failure, possibly a public one, and then we have a choice.
“Do I let this rule me, or do I learn, grow and move on to the next challenge?”
- It’s easy to get consumed with what others are doing, to focus outwards in the hope it will bring us THE answer, or the path forward for us. Shit, even happiness. It rarely does. It’s a distraction.
Instead, focus on your own game/life;
“What do I need to do?”
“Where do I need to be?”
“How can I do this best?”
- When you don’t know – ask.
I could have entered that field and tried to fake it, like I knew.
That would have been unwise. Instead, somehow, I had the balls to tell a senior player that I had no idea where I needed to be and asked him to help me out.
Guess what he said… “Sure bro” – no issue, no embarrassment, just SUPPORT – We’re on the same team.
It’s funny when you look back with the view of observing – there are so many little lessons.
With this one, I’m mostly surprised at how I navigated the situation. 16 year old Mike, in between trying to get shitfaced and laid, had some sneaky confidence going on.
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