Tuesday June 10, 1986.
I am in my living room when the phone rings. The digital clock on a side table indicates the time is 10.14pm. For whatever reason I sense something is amiss. Maybe it is intuition, an uneasiness, a sense of foreboding. I hesitate, think perhaps I will just not answer the call.
However, I take a deep breath and pick up the receiver. The voice on the other end is that of the head coach. He is direct and to the point. You have not been selected to the Rugby World Cup squad he tells me.
The bad news is a hammer blow. My dream of representing Canada in the inaugural world championship, set for New Zealand the following summer, lies in tatters.
Immediately my mind returns to events of three days earlier. I win my first test cap, vs Japan. Both teams are sluggish and error prone and the game is not a contest that will live long in the memory banks. However, Canada is expected to win, possibly win well. I have the small consolation of scoring a debut try, dropping a goal, and kicking reasonably well from hand. But collectively we never hit stride and lose 26-21.
I contact my father to commiserate. He is certainly sympathetic, somewhat frustrated, even a tad annoyed when he learns I am the only one of the 22 players involved vs Japan to be dropped.
But, fortunately for me, he is also pragmatic. He counsels that making excuses is not going to change the selectors’ decision. There is to be no whining or rationalizing. Instead, I must swallow my dismay, use it instead as fuel, and redouble my efforts moving forward.
I too must be very frank with myself. Our backline vs Japan does not fire a shot. As the fly half, I am, at least to a certain degree, responsible for this failure. Moreover, I am caught out of position in defence at a crucial juncture in the second half. I can only watch in horror as my opposite number, direct from a midfield scrum, angles untouched through a gap en route to a soft score. Pure and simple, I need to improve. My performance is just not good enough.
Eventually, I speak personally with the coach. An uncompromising back row forward in his playing days, he is again blunt and honest. There continue to be reservations about your tackling he reminds me. I cannot complain, as he is right. And, in the end, every player, even the superstar, wants the truth and wants to be coached.
In closing, he holds out a carrot of sorts. I am to be included on a fringe Canada tour of France in August. Then, work willing, I could possibly come back into national contention in the spring of 1987, with the completion of the club season and after a series of trial games.
For a whole raft of reasons, making the necessary improvement becomes an absolute obsession, one I seem powerless to resist. While not being selected for a rugby team hardly qualifies as a crisis, the words of the second century philosopher Epictetus bolster me. “Circumstances don’t make the man; they only reveal him to himself."
The French trip is a success. Despite having to play three punishing games in five days, our team, a mixture of several front line Canada performers and various other hopefuls, performs well. In a stunning upset, we tip over Toulouse, the national club champions, 17-10, before running both Brive and Agen close.
Next comes a winter of savage training. I spend hours on the field working on basic skills. Even more time smashing into tackle bags. Plenty of hill sprints and weight sessions, and, when the weather is particularly vile, 3000m pieces on the rowing machine in the dingy bowels of the gym.
A Canada camp is held at UBC in the spring. Part of the Possibles squad, I fare decently well vs the Probables, even though we narrowly lose the match.
The story has a happy ending. I eventually regain my place in the national team and attend the 1987 Rugby World Cup. Not surprisingly, given I am to understudy two of the most accomplished performers in the squad, I do not actually get any game time in our matches vs Tonga, Ireland and Wales. While this is somewhat disappointing, overall, I am still satisfied. It may be a cliché, but the journey has in fact actually been better than the end.
In the years since, I often think back to that Tuesday night call. Little did I know that the news delivered, and the subsequent response, would end up being the best life lesson I could ever imagine.
For, on a whole variety of levels, setbacks and disappointments and tough times happen. There will be regrets. But, as these are inevitable, learn to accept them. Filter out any dread or apprehension, even if events appear not to bode well. Flip the situation around, as opportunity knocks.
Be sure to always pick up the phone.
Happy New Year.