The healing power of rugby

So it’s been a while since I’ve written a blog entry, over two years in fact, and I will touch briefly in this post as to why that is, but what I really want to focus on today is what rugby union means to me and how it has helped me personally.

First it’s probably best to give you a bit of background about myself. Rugby union has played a huge part in my life, some of my earliest memories revolve around it and supporting Scarlets and Wales has always been a huge passion of mine. When I turned 16 I got diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Unless you’ve experienced such illnesses, it is very difficult to describe just how debilitating they can be.

One of my proudest achievements is actually being able to return to school and complete my A-levels and to then go on be able to attend and complete three years at University. I needed a lot of help along the way and I worked through two blocks of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at 16 and 17, and then again in my second year of Uni when I was 19. While I may have struggled badly at the time I always had one thing that I could pour myself into and to help me forget about my troubles and that was rugby.

My university friends can well attest to how much I love rugby, I even missed a seminar just so I could watch ‘Rygbi cant a cant’ on S4C because I knew they’d be interviewing Stephen Jones. I’d make the ridiculous 5 hour bus journey from Aberystwyth to Cardiff just so I could go and watch Wales play in an Autumn International and suffer what felt like a 10 hour journey back with a hangover. Not to forget my ridiculous over excitement when the Scarlets would come and train in Aberystwyth during the 6 Nations period and I’d walked passed Regan King on Penglais Hill.

After graduating I moved to Cardiff and after a year and a half in Canton I then moved right to Westgate Street within a stone’s throw of the Millennium Stadium. There was something about living right near our national stadium that couldn’t help but put a smile on my face. What I found though was that I needed more than to just go to the occasional game and settle for just watching matches on television and here’s where the rise of the internet and social media really started to help.

There are many good and decent rugby forums out there and on one of them I managed to become friends with and eventually meet in person a group of rugby people who are amongst the most decent, kind hearted, friendly and welcoming people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting from all corners of the UK, Ireland and even France. For me personally this was a huge stepping stone in gaining confidence as due to my anxiety I’d always found it difficult to go to new places and meet new people. But knowing I was going to be with likeminded people, who loved rugby just as much as me, gave me the reassurance to try it and with each meet up the easier it became.

And here is where I will move the discussion on specifically to the Scarlets.

Living in Cardiff as I was then, in about 2010-2011 I wanted to go and watch more Scarlets games. My whole life that I’d supported them I’d never been able to go and watch them as much as I’d wanted, especially in my Uni years as it was so difficult to get from Aberystwyth to Llanelli. My big problem then was that I had no one to go and watch the games with. My friends lived all over the UK and none of them were die hard Scarlets fans that would be willing to make the journey every few weeks or so to Llanelli for an 80 minute rugby match.

Eventually I think I moaned about it so much by brother told me to just go and watch them by myself and get chatting to the others that went. He said the more I went the more I’d recognise people and the easier it would get. So go I did.

My first Scarlets game by myself was actually an away game against the Dragons. I’d never even been to Newport before, but I managed to find my way to Rodney Parade unscathed (no mean feat 😉 ) and enjoyed my time on the terracing tremendously. Oh and the Scarlets won – that always helps! And then I started going to Scarlets home games. I’d keep to myself for the main part as I was (and am) so shy but I soon started recognising the regulars and it was always nice to see friendly faces on the terracing.

Then 2012 came calling and my mental health took a bit of a dip due to my extreme unhappiness at work and I was diagnosed with depression again. In April of that year I thought enough was enough and I handed in my notice and moved back home to my parent’s house in West Wales in May of that year. It was only supposed to be for a few months yet somehow 5 years later I am still here.

That summer I decided to start up a sports blog as a way to channel my energy as I’d always found writing helped when I was feeling low. This led to an incredible opportunity for me when I won a blog competition and got to go to the Pro12 launch in Glasgow. Given my recent blip with depression and my on-going anxiety this was a huge challenge for me. I’d never been to Scotland before, never flown anywhere by myself and yet I made the trip. I remember getting on the bus outside of the hotel to take us to the launch venue, and I was trying to keep myself calm and just as I thought ‘shit no, I can’t do this’ and moved to get up and off the bus a gentleman called Mark Anscombe sat next to me completely blocking off my exit route!

It turned out to be a blessing. He was very lovely, asking where I’d come from, how I thought the Scarlets would do that upcoming season and I remember being so impressed with his knowledge of the set up in Llanelli and how we liked to play the game. The bus journey went in a blink and soon enough I was at the launch venue and sat interviewing Rob McCusker. I don’t think I will ever be able to put into words how nervous I was but he was wonderful and easy to speak to. Then I had the arduous wait of trying to speak to Simon Easterby who was in very high demand from all of the reporters there. As I was waiting I realised I probably wouldn’t get this opportunity again so I worked up my courage and started to interview the other team captains that were there. That trip to Glasgow did wonders for my confidence, it felt like a switch had been turned on and I knew what to do to control my anxiety.

When the rugby season started again I soon realised I watched and wrote about rugby so much it was better to make this a dedicated rugby blog. So off I used to go to Parc y Scarlets via train, or if possible get my Dad to drive and come with me, with my notepad in hand to stand on the terracing and take it all in. You’d think that would put people off chatting to me but all it did was have people talk to me more and the more I went, the more I spoke with the other Scarlets fans and the more I enjoyed it. It was the 2012/2013 season that I started to go on the away Scarlets trips.

My first proper away trip was to watch the Scarlets play Leinster in Dublin. I knew I had Irish friends that I could meet up with over there but first I had to make the journey, so I booked myself on to the Scarlets club trip by myself and just like that I was absorbed into the Scarlets fans rugby family. Everyone was so nice and welcoming and adopted me right into the fold. From then on in nothing could stop me.

I even made the decision to blow my savings on going on the Lions tour to Australia for the third test match in 2013. One of my Irish friends worked at the time for an Irish tour group and helped sort out my trip and then when I was over there I got to meet up with some of the Scarlets fans that I had made friends with during the season.

Since then the trips have only gotten better. Clermont, Toulon, Paris, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Treviso, Dublin, Belfast, Gloucester and Bath (and I’m sure I’ve forgotten others) the Scarlets away trips are like nothing else imaginable. When you have a group of people you travel with so frequently and who all share the same passion it’s like being part of this one, massive Scarlets rugby family. The Scarlets and rugby has allowed me to see the world, and make some of the very best friends in the process.

But the enjoyment factor alone is not why I wanted to write this blog. I’ve already spoken above about how rugby has managed to get me through some tough times and recently it has worked its magic on me again.

Towards the tail end of 2015 and for the whole of 2016 my anxiety flared up with a vengeance. I’d gone through a blip with my enjoyment of rugby due to the WRU v Regions fiasco but it was things in my personal life that made it very hard for me to keep going down to Parc y Scarlets to watch my team play.

The combination of trying to save a deposit for a house, complete my MA while working full time and to process and deal with a family bereavement left me pretty worn out in 2016 and by the season kicking off in the September I really struggled to make home games and away trips weren’t even on the cards – I just couldn’t do it. I found I couldn’t even stand on the terracing at games because I couldn’t bear to hear the negativity (rightly or wrongly) coming from the home support and I was finding crowds of people very difficult to deal with.

It was only in the new year of 2017 that I started to go back to watching the Scarlets live, and each home game was a struggle, but I made myself go because it was the Scarlets and I didn’t want my illness to prevent me going anymore. Then came the very big test – a trip to Rome in February to watch Wales that I had booked the year before when I hadn’t been feeling quite so unwell. I am so fortunate in my friends and the group of ladies that I traveled with. They were understanding and supportive when I explained my problems half way through the trip and started to struggle with my anxiety. I may not have made the actual match because I had such a bad anxiety flare up that day but the trip itself started me back on the road to recovery. I’d managed the journey, meeting new people and going to new places, all things that I find difficult. It was time to stop beating myself up and to remind myself of how I’d managed to do things before.

My MA finished in March, I had an offer on a house accepted in April (though the purchase still isn’t complete!) and I was finding it easier and easier to go to rugby games and here the Scarlets really come back into play.

My first away trip this season was the semi-final against Leinster at the RDS. I’d been feeling rubbish all the week leading up to it and I couldn’t figure out if it was my anxiety playing tricks on me or if I was genuinely unwell, but as my temperature spiked on the Thursday and I’d started to glug down cold and flu drinks I realised that no, I genuinely did feel awful. But this was for the Scarlets, I couldn’t not go just because I had a cold coming. So I went, sang myself hoarse and got laryngitis for my efforts.

I cried my eyes out at the final whistle. That trip had reminded me so much of why I loved the Scarlets and I don’t mean just how we played on the pitch – it was the fans off it too. The camaraderie, the singing, the joy of sharing such an experience with so many others, these are things that you don’t get to experience very often and when you do you have to savour it. How the Scarlets players performed on the pitch was a delightful and amazing bonus. We’d shown flashes of brilliance on and off over the last few seasons but nothing with any consistency. But our last home game against the Ospreys and then the amazingness of our win over Leinster in a semi-final was something truly special to behold. Pride doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Preparations for the final had to be made. My parents were coming, my sister whose last Scarlets game was our cup final against Swansea in 1999 was even making the trip, and my brother was cutting his own rugby tour short to make the journey over from Malta via France. The sheer effort so many Scarlets fans went to, to make sure they were in Dublin for the final was incredible.

For me myself, I was feeling rough as hell all week. Come the day of the final I felt even worse. A combination of nerves and my cold that wouldn’t budge and the 3am start nearly finished me off. I must even confess to having to go back to the hotel at 4pm to have an emergency nap before kick-off and even as the game started I felt so light headed and wobbly on my feet I didn’t know how I would last the game. And then Sanjay scored. Then Steff Evans scored. Then Cawdor scored. Then Tadhg Beirne scored. I think I forgot to feel anything other than sheer elation. I had a quick cry by myself in the toilets at half time before I watched the second half in a grinning happy state of sheer disbelief.

The way the Scarlets won is something that will live with me for a very long time. This was the style of rugby of my childhood that I never thought I would truly see with any consistency again. What the coaching team and set up at the Scarlets has managed to create and achieve is something exceptional and I am going to enjoy every moment now of watching this special group of players.

When I say rugby has healing powers for me it truly does. It’s distracted me from my troubles and given me the opportunity to travel and see the world with some truly special people. I’ve come to realise that my anxiety is something that is never truly going to go away but that I have to sometimes re-learn to manage, but being able to follow a team like the Scarlets is one of the best things that has ever happened to me and has helped me to deal with it.

This is a very personal and atypical post from me because I’ll admit it I’m still utterly exhausted from the last two weekends in Dublin and emotionally drained, but I felt I had to share just what being part of a special club is like. People follow sports for so many different reasons. For me the Scarlets have helped me so much, even when they don’t play well, because they’ve opened up the world to me and I love them for it.