When I met my husband, he regularly wore a rugby shirt which he'd won in a competition. He was very proud of the NZ rugby league team they represented. He was so proud of them, I discovered when we got married, that he would get up at midnight or three am to listen to sports radio on the Internet when they were playing. If there was no sports radio available, he would watch diagrams of little stick figures moving around, representing what was happening on a field in the Southern Hemisphere. In Yorkshire, he adopted a local team (Leeds Rhinos) and took our son to see them. But the team in New Zealand remained his first love. I got used to these funny little stick-men, and the wild range of emotions that they aroused in my husband. Since I never saw a real game, and no one else wore their shirts in England, I kind of forgot that this was an actual team, and regarded it as a lovable personal eccentricity, like stamp-collecting or Subbuteo.
Of course, I had to hear about the history of rugby league. This was an ordeal. Hearing about rugby league history is slightly akin to the failed attempt I made, when a teenager travelling around Europe, to get in touch with my Jewish ethnic roots by taking a tour of every Jewish quarter in the capitals we visited. This had to be abandoned when my travel companions pointed out that they were on holiday, and that they had no intention of spending every second day in tears as they listened to another heart-rending tale of ghettos and pogroms. OK, so no one dies in rugby league history, but it is all about being a persecuted minority. Landowners, the British aristocracy, scoff and try to ban this working-class sport. The Nazis and collaborators in France try to stamp it out in favour of rugby union. Then it travels to New Zealand, where the establishment rugby union tries to get it squeezed out. As I was told this story, it was mainly the victim of class prejudice with a smattering of racism thrown in for good measure. Where cricket fans will list off famous innings, rugby league fans will reel off the seven hundred and fifty different ways in which rugby league has been treated badly by the rest of the world. Honestly, it's no fun. I feel like saying "All so sad and serious. Wasn't this supposed to be a game?"
So it was quite strange to go and watch a game, a real one, not fuzzy dots on a computer and not far-off-players in a history. Today we went, as a family, to an actual game. I walked through the gate and felt as if I had walked into a science fiction movie where fiendish sports-mad scientists had cloned my husband a few thousand times. Everyone was wearing Warriors shirts, and everyone - just like him - seemed terribly, terribly interested in whether they won or lost this week. It was like our sittingroom of a weekend, but magnified to the size of a stadium. On the Special Bus, I told the man sitting next to me about my husband's weird habit of staying up all night in England to not watch these guys play. "Good man!" he said enthusiastically. Oh dear Lord, I am surrounded by nutters who think this is normal and sensible behaviour. Then my attention was distracted by my middle son announcing that he didn't want to watch rugby, he wanted to go on an aeroplane instead. A teenage boy in front of us looked at us with mystified scorn. I felt like tapping him on the shoulder, and saying "You know when you complain that your parents are being unreasonable? Have a heart, they will have spent ten or twelve years listening to you coming out with crap like this."
Anyway, we got to the game, and it started, and they all ran around, and when they fell on top of each other we booed, except for the times when we cheered. Sometimes our youngest did both at the same time. Which suggested that he and I understood the game to about the same level. And because I really, really don't understand rugby league, I did some crowd-watching. It was lovely, a very mixed crowd - of countries, cultures, gender, races, accents. It compared very favourably with the crowds for rugby league back in Yorkshire, where monoculturalism still rules, even in towns like Leeds and Bradford which have large ethnic minority communities. This was similar to the still-total segregation of sporting crowds in South Africa fifteen years ago, where my white friends thought I was weird for liking soccer and my black friends wanted to know how this peculiar game called rugby was played. There did not seem to be the same kind of ethnic segregation here. Everyone united by this one passion, which to me remains a complete mystery. My husband, several thousand times. I began pondering, if you filled a stadium with clones of me, what they would be.
I decided that it would be mothers of children with Special Needs. Of course, their stories would be very different, but there would be a shared history of grumpy militancy, a determination to get our kids the best deal they could. I kind of liked the idea of a stadium full of us, all shouting for our kids. Of course, we would all be a bit obsessional, a bit one-sided, a bit TOO intense. Like a passionate sports fan, we would talk about it all too much. And we would occasionally be guilty of staying up late at night to work on our child's paperwork, rather than get some sleep. Yes, quite a few parallels then. Then I noticed that the team - who had been losing badly - were suddenly doing rather better, and for a few minutes it looked as if we could be in with a chance of winning the game. Didn't happen, of course - told you they are a persecuted minority - but for a moment or two it was quite exciting. Almost enough fun to make up for the terrible bus ride home with three exhausted children. I'm sure the other passengers did not rethink their attitude to homicide at all during the Great "But That's MY Beano, you can have the OTHER Beano" Argument. Particularly frustrating as to me the two Beanos looked exactly the same. A bit like when I watch rugby on telly and try to work out whether it is actually union or league.
I am not sure whether rugby league will ever be something I truly love. It is, however, an inevitable part of my life, part of the man that I married, as inseparable from him as his love of coffee. You get to love it, because you love him. And you know, some things, like your children's additional needs, you just get used to, work around, and end up being quite a natural part of your lives. So I am going to continue going and enjoying the games, and enjoying the fact that through my husband's passion I get introduced to a compelely different world. It's fair enough, after all. It's not as if I don't have my obsessions, things I can't live without, things that I have insisted play a dominant part in his world. After all, when we met, he scarcely drank tea....