For the love of the game

As Britain’s most remote rugby club, Shetland RFC are forced to overcome monumental challenges each season just to fulfil their fixture requirements, and every away game becomes an adventure of Indiana Jones-like proportions. IRN joined them last season on an energy-sapping double-header weekend and discovers the true meaning of playing for the love of the game.

By Neil Reynolds

Imagine, for a second, you are forced to travel thousands of miles in a single year. You spend hours every other weekend being thrown about on a rolling, dangerous sea while isolated from your loved ones. And your Saturday afternoons consist of being made to run around in shorts while the horizontal rain, sleet and snow attacks every exposed portion of flesh with a vengeance.

And those are just the good weekends.

Those of you who think you have stumbled on to the script for the old Japanese game show ‘Endurance’ - where hilarity ensued while contestants were either having their underpants filled with scorpions or not allowed to go to the toilet for hours on end while being force-fed water - would be wrong.

What might seem like a nightmare to most sane individuals is actually par for the course for members of Shetland Rugby Club, who take the edict of playing for the love of the game to a whole new level.

Situated more than 200 miles north-east of Aberdeen, Shetland is actually much closer to Norway than mainland Scotland. That makes away days in the Caledonia Regional League Division 2 a considerable test of stamina and, quite often, intestinal fortitude.

“Each one of these away games turns into a mini-tour,” admits club president Forbes Hogg. “It is part of life to travel by ferry in Shetland and if you want to do anything, you have to travel hundreds of miles down to Aberdeen. So it can almost be taken for granted. But the fact that these men, quite often with young families and work commitments, will put their life on hold every second week to do that is quite spectacular. It shows a tremendous amount of dedication to the game of rugby.”

Club captain Robert Geddes adds: “We’re almost like a social club playing in a serious league but when you consider we have, on average, two days of travel to play 80 minutes of rugby, that takes some commitment.
“The dedication shown by our players is inspiring and it is that kind of love of the game that has kept the club going over the years as we embark on this new era in the league.”

We join our intrepid rugby travellers, along with club officials and supporters, at the Northlink Ferry Terminal in Lerwick, Shetland, on the evening of Friday April 13. Despite the entire team arriving on time for the five hour voyage to Orkney, there is much nervous shuffling of feet and the constant checking of text messages on mobile phones.

Hogg explains: “There have been times when we have players turn up for the boat on Friday night only to be told, ‘The game is off, guys. I’ve just got an email or a text message from the other team saying they’ve had to cancel the game.’”
That has been the case all too often this season, hence the double-header weekend against Lochaber and Moray in order to ease a considerable fixture pile-up.

“We have had several cancellations due to waterlogged pitches on the mainland,” Hogg says. “It has been such a horrible, wet winter for everybody. “About three or four times, the ferries said there was no guarantee we were going to leave Shetland that night and there was no guarantee when, if at all, we would get into Aberdeen. Aberdeen has problems with its harbour. If the tide is running in a certain direction at speed, it silts up and the boats are big flat-bottomed things built for the Baltic Sea so they just cannot get in. They sit bobbing about in the swell waiting to try to get in.

“Often we are stuck behind Orkney waiting for the high winds to die down. Then when we go there is no guarantee we will be able to get back because the forecasts are often so bad. You can quite easily get stuck in Aberdeen for a few days and it becomes this four-day epic where you’re stuck on this horrible, stinking boat with nothing to eat but awful food.”

There are no such problems on this particular Friday the 13th and the double-header weekend is officially underway as we set sail for Orkney. The long journey allows all involved to partake in some wining and dining on board.

The first disaster of the trip occurs just 10 minutes before docking in Orkney as the skipper and the chairman realise that between them they have overlooked one vital ingredient of any rugby team - the kit!
Luckily, Orkney RFC are boarding the ferry to travel to play Strathearn RFC. Players and officials from Shetland and Orkney often spend hours together on the high seas and have developed a close bond in recent years. So Hogg manages to blag an Orkney second team kit and the possibility of Shetland being forced to play in ‘skins’ is averted.

“That was a shocker,” Hogg admits. “We have gone away without a medical kit or a kicking tee, but never without our kit.”

The ferry leaves Orkney at 11:30 p.m. and although the on-board entertainment consists of a restaurant, bar, cinema and mini-casino, the players head to their cabins for some much-needed shut-eye.
Eight hours later and the Shetland players are enjoying a hearty breakfast on board shortly before docking at Aberdeen. For some veteran players, approaching the harbour brings back perversely fond memories of one monumental away trip last season.

“We had a bare 15 and we were travelling to play Aberdeen Wanderers, who were top of our division,” Hogg recalls. “We got on the ferry and it was a Force 9 and 10 all the way down - it was just horrendous and we were bouncing about.

“We got down to Aberdeen and couldn’t get into the harbour because the sand banks were too high. So we rocked about in the rolling seas outside Aberdeen for four hours. We eventually docked at 1:00 p.m., rushed straight to the ground, played the league leaders and beat them with a scratch team.

“Then it was literally straight back onto the boat for another 16 or 17 hours on the high seas. We didn’t get home until Sunday lunchtime but we didn’t care – we had just beaten the league leaders and felt like gods.”
After 13 and a half hours on a ferry, it’s time for a five-hour cross-country coach journey to Lochaber’s ground near Fort William. This is no time to begin worrying about minor things such as travel sickness.

On the journey to Fort William team officials discover the borrowed kit does not include shorts and a quick head-count reveals Shetland are five pairs short. A quick pit-stop in Aviemore frantically sees the players diving in and out of eight sports shops, all of which specialise in mountain, snow and survival gear – not a pair of rugby shorts in sight.

We arrive at Lochaber’s ground an hour and 10 minutes before the 2:00 p.m. kick-off and several players dash straight into town to continue the search for increasingly-elusive shorts.

With everyone finally kitted out, the game kicks off in sunny and unseasonably warm conditions amid breathtaking scenery as the pitch is encircled by mountains and sea lochs, with the snow-capped peak of the great Ben Nevis as a backdrop.

In a bad-tempered and scrappy affair, Lochaber prevail by a 7-3 scoreline but the travel-weary men of Shetland manage to secure a bonus point by keeping the result to within seven points.

Players and officials from both teams enjoy a wonderful post-match feed before retiring to the sun-drenched clubhouse balcony to enjoy a few moments of rest and to analyse the loss. It soon becomes apparent why the visitors came up short in the first of the weekend’s matches.

“There has been a lot of discussion about what that big yellow ball in the sky is,” Hogg reveals. “Our poor performance is down to that hot, scary, bright light in the sky - it intimidated us. We very rarely see that thing you southern people call “the sun” in Shetland and certainly never as bright and as strong as this afternoon.”
After more than 18 hours travelling over land and sea, the squad could be forgiven for heading straight to their digs and crashing out for the night.

Instead, they don a weird and wonderful array of fancy dress outfits - ranging from a not-so-sexy French maid to a Rab C. Nisbett look-a-like - and head into Fort William for an evening of merriment.
But with another game looming the next day, surely the club president enforced a curfew?
“That would have been impossible,” Hogg groggily admits the next morning. “There was no way anybody was going to their bed early.”

Day three dawns and it’s back on the bus at 8:00 a.m. as we head 100 miles north to Elgin to face Moray. The mood on the coach is best described as subdued as the 16 players and the supporters attempt to recover from the exertions of the night before. Thankfully, the French Maid’s outfit is nowhere to be seen.

We arrive 15 minutes before kick-off and when the opening whistle blows, it is clear to see the Shetland players are suffering from a mixture of bus and beer legs and they find themselves three tries down inside 20 minutes.
They soon rally and go into the half-time break trailing by four tries to two. Although a memorable fight-back is beyond them, Shetland do score a last-gasp try to secure another bonus point – for touching down four times in a 44-24 loss.

“Two losses but we got a bonus point out of each match so that was pleasing,” said a rather-weary Hogg, who, at 52, had been forced to play a game and a half over the weekend despite retiring from the front row two seasons ago. “The travel and beer legs were definitely on us for the first 20 minutes and we got run over.”

After the game there is just enough time for a post-match pie and pint before making a mad dash to Aberdeen harbour, arriving with just seven minutes to spare. As the ferry eases out onto relatively calm waters, the players head for the stern sun deck and soak up the late afternoon rays, knowing thick fog and considerably cooler temperatures await them back on Shetland.

After two hours of putting the world to rights and discussing player availability for upcoming games, the Annual General Meeting, club captaincy nominations and where best to shop for underwear, the group moves inside for dinner.

Dinner and straight to bed would be too boring for this lot, so after the meal it’s off to the bar to kill a few more hours before heading to the tiny cabins, which are shared by four players.

“We always have a good laugh on the boat,” Hogg stresses. “There are always people you know because everybody on Shetland has to use the ferry unless they are really rich and can fly all the time. The bar stays open until 1:00 a.m. so we always sit around and have a chat and discuss what went on in the game.”

In the early hours of Monday morning, the hardy souls of Shetland RFC retire to their beds. And when they dock at 7:20 a.m., after a testing night’s sleep, many of them head straight to work.

The double-header weekend is finally over. Yet despite 26 hours on a ferry, close to half that time stuck on a bus and coming up short during two losses, the players and officials of Shetland Rugby Club go their separate ways with a warm glow burning inside of them as their rugby fix has been satisfied for another week.

“The travel is tiring,” concludes Hogg, who works as a principal art and design teacher at Shetland’s Anderson High School. “But that is one of the things you learn to live with when playing long-distance rugby. It’s not quite the same as jumping in the back of two Cortinas and going to the next town.

“It’s either this or nothing. And rugby is about playing games so this is what we want to do.”