Pain and Gain Chronicle
Coming Up For Air
Daniel Herbert joined USAP, Perpignan’s rugby team, in 2003. He was the prime mover, along with Tim Horan, behind Australia’s World Cup winning team in 1999. Before their partnership in the ‘bosom of the backs’ was loosed upon the world, the Wallabies tended to fall apart at centre.
However in three years at Perpignan he has only played a handful of games because of a neck injury. The spirit is willing but the body is broken. His afternoons are spent sunk to the forehead in the balneotherapy pool at Presport sports clinic where I’m being treated myself for a cycling injury. According to the attendant, ‘M. Herbert is slowing down his heart’. A rugged quiff is visible on the surface, so he is less a billy-diver than a capybara, the amphibious South American buffalo.
‘How do you breath, Jason?’ I say, when he eventually surfaces.
‘I can stop breathing for five minutes. And my name is Daniel.’
‘I wouldn’t be the first to make that mistake’, I apologise. ‘Your scissors moves deceived enough defences.’ He goes back down again.
It was worse than a slip of the tongue. Jason Little and Daniel Herbert vied with one another for five years to be Tim Horan’s centre partner. They were considered interchangeable since their stainless steel physique and cut glass style were so similar. That Daniel triumphed in the end was said to be the result of a toss up.
Daniel Herbert defies physiological logic. You can only breath under water for three minutes. But I readily believe that this mass of stocky muscle, who started intensive rugby training as an infant and made his debut for Australia at eighteen, is capable of being dead two minutes and rising again. The analogy with Lazarus stops there. Herbert, robust and almost robotic, is not programmed to have second thoughts, let alone doubts. In the dressing room I ask him how he likes his life as a professional and he says, ‘It’s a good living’.
As his body replaces space in the water it will have its time again, I think.
In Le Journal Daniel is reported as saying, ‘Je veux seulement rattrapper le temps perdu’ (I want only to catch up with lost time). I wonder if he has been reading Proust while underwater? Christian Fournal, the club doctor, has declared him ‘apte’ (fit) to play rugby again in ‘cycles’. The arthritis in his neck will resurge from time to time. ‘I could perform to professional standards in periods of quiescence’, Daniel tells the reporter, who concludes, ‘Herbert is unshakeable, pitiless with himself, and not one to let anybody down’.
But Dr Christian has been over-optimistic. Daniel’s death-defying subaqueous Proust reading only leads to an operation that ends his career. Perpignan withholds his wages for the last year of his contract. Herbert sues and is awarded equivalent compensation to half pay. He shrugs his hurt shoulder and walks away.
Daniel Herbert is married to Serena Frisby from Cork. I played tip rugby with her mother on the disused railway line in Blackrock over fifty years ago.
A Thought or Two about Tim
Around about the same time as Herbert, USAP signed an English international, Tim Stimpson, a name that trips off the tongue. A utility back and place kicker, this gangly giant, despite awesome speed, ball in hand, and accuracy with the boot, is out of favour. It’s said he’s too intelligent to rein into the army discipline that won England the World Cup the previous year. And so at thirty, like Daniel Herbert, he’s seeking his fortune abroad.
When Dr Christian asks what I think of the new signing, I cry out, like the Perpignan fans in the terraces when they are displeased, ‘U Sap, U Sap. Tim is a classic sap buy. An ageing star with a recent history of knee problems.’
‘Why is it always the knees with the English?’ Dr Christian remarks. ‘I fear we’re going to need a medical joker.’
And he was right. Tim hasn’t completed a game since he arrived. I meet him at Presport. A sweet-natured Yorkshire lad, whose thoughtfulness erases any signs of celebrity. His desperation to get back into the game has even led him to try a healer in the mountains. Fey, I think, but I am impressed by the hurt he carries which is not physical. He feels guilt at not being performant. In Le Journal he is reported as saying ‘J’ai hâte d’y être’. I translate it for him. He learns the French phrase for ‘I can’t wait to be back’ off by heart.
In order to change the subject I ask how he prepares to take a penalty. He has a reputation for not picking and choosing his kicks. He’ll boot anything from anywhere with the same morbid confidence. If Johnny Wilkinson prepares as through he’s about to crouch on a toilet, Tim builds mud huts. ‘I don’t think of the pleasure of getting the ball over the bar. My mind talks to my body. A miss would mean the game would be lost, a nation plunged into gloom. And it would be all my own miserable fault.’ In other words, he shames himself into getting it right. His approach, I think, is called cognitive therapy. And it works. Tim Stimpson has an eighty-five percent strike rate. But I trust he is wise enough not to apply his method-school of kicking to his personal life (‘Most gentlemen don’t like love/ they just like to kick it around’, says Cole Porter).
When Tim returns to the turf against Dr Christain’s advice, he lasts twenty minutes. Watching him shrug off the stretcher, and instead hobble off nobly as the terraces mock him by chanting ‘The English Patient’ (a bad joke to go with a worse movie of the moment), I realise how young great sportsmen are. Just boys. I don’t want to believe the end of a career is in sight. So I think of something else. It works. Leeds has offered him a contract for next year.
That Tim never regained his England place is history. His professional career petered out.
My Only Rugby Poem
In my youth I didn’t feel the pain
injured in the heat of a game
and finished the match in a prelaps -
arian innocence only to collapse
into the arms of a dwindling crowd,
and the trophy’s not mine. Youth is proud
to take the laurels for granted
and the body. What’s countermanded
is only temporary. But that try
I nearly got while breaking a bone
was a touchdown on the moon (now known
to be half mirage, half deadpan surface
without illusions, hardly worth a base
to land on. The romantic poets
were happier when it was remote.
And love has never been the same).
So much for concussion of the brain.