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Chapter 1: Can he do it?


"Pass the ball, Sizwe!"

The ball came to Steve just as Sizwe, his best friend and the team's flyhalf, took the tackle and cried out in pain as he fell hard and landed awkwardly. But he looked up to see what magic might unfold. This was the do-or-die moment, when the referee had his whistle in his mouth, ready to blow for full-time and end the game. If that was the case, it wouldn't end in joy. But as he went down, Sizwe had managed to flick the pass to Steve in the split-second before he took the hit from the opposition's biggest player, a kind of boy-who-resembles-an-oak-tree, and Steve, receiving the perfect pass right into his hands, was headed for the tryline.

There were shouts and claps of excitement from parents and the rest of the onlookers as they sensed a change in the way the game might go. But Steve still had two defenders to beat...

He was completely unaware of the enthusiastic cheers of his team-mates who were watching the action unfold, urging him on towards the tryline. He was in the zone, totally focused on what he had to do.

Almost without thinking, he managed to fool the first defender with a dummy pass which sent his opponent diving into fresh air. And then there was just one last obstacle to overcome. He sidestepped the last line of defence - the highly-rated fullback from Spring Valley - with some nifty footwork that caught his would-be tackler off-balance and he was Home-Jerome as he sprinted the remaining 25 metres to the tryline to take his team to the brink of what would be an unlikely victory.

For much of the game it had appeared that their bitter rivals would continue the dominance their school had enjoyed over Steve's, one that stretched over more than 15 years. But now that unbeaten run looked as though it might just come to an end, in quite the most dramatic way. Steve was about to become the school hero!

Spring Valley had not lost to Wood Glen for a decade and a half and after leading on the scoreboard until the final minute of the game, thought their record would remain. But they now faced the unlikeliest upset in their school's recent history. Spring Valley had scored two tries to Wood Glen's one, but Steve's accurate kicking had kept his team within reach of their opponents throughout the game. The visitors' track record of success had always been built on outstanding defence and it had ensured today that, at the very least, this was a game they could win.

Wood Glen's coach, the ancient, but very lively Mr Hartop, had been in charge for ages, some said since the school had opened 90 years previously! He had white hair, so you could tell he was as old as the hills. Or maybe just the old trees. The wrinkles on his face from hundreds and thousands of hours in the sun resembled the bark of an ancient tree. The boys all called him Hard-Top, although not to his face. When you addressed him directly, he was simply 'coach'. But his grey hair, cut short like an army haircut (no-one had ever seen it different), made him look as though his head possessed a hard-top, like a steel helmet.

Anyway, you don't really want to hear all about the grizzly bear of a coach, do you? You want to know if Steve kicked the conversion to win the game? We'll find that out, but first, a little more about the coach, because coaches are incredibly important people in sport.

They not only teach you how to play, but they tell you stuff to make you believe in yourself. They praise you and give you self-confidence and Mr Hartop made the players he coached feel good about themselves - but only if they trained hard, tried hard and did their best.

He was tough, but fair. If you did well, he was quick to praise you, but DON'T get on his wrong side. That was a recipe for disaster. Like throwing a cracker under the toilet door when someone was inside. Imagine that, hey? It would be one major disaster for the poor person inside.

Anyway, let's not go down that road, or even think about that. Back to Mr Hartop.

His coaching philosophy was simple: 'Be better than your opposition. In everything you do.'

This meant that he pushed the guys incredibly hard at training. Sometimes so much that they could hardly breathe and felt like getting sick. But he insisted that rugby was not a game for softies and if you wanted to play, you needed to throw everything into it. There were some boys and their parents who didn't like his attitude and they generally drifted into another team or another sport. Many felt that he was too tough and expected too much.

Maybe that was the truth. But he got the results and because of all the hours and hours of practice and drills, all their hard work was about to be rewarded. They were about to complete the perfect season; winning every fixture.

This had been the toughest match of the year, but with the conversion still to come, their unbeaten record lay in the balance. In fact a couple of records. Would they maintain their unbeaten run this year? Would Spring Valley continue their 15 year dominance over Wood Glen? Would Steve set the record for most points one player had ever scored against their opponents? Ever?

And so the pressure shifted on to Steve's shoulders.



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