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Matt Williams: Still wiping her son’s blood from my hands she asked, ‘Will he have a scar?’

There is a tall young man, with a tiny scar on his forehead who is living proof that blood, sweat and tears, when mixed with rugby, can change your life

Long ago, trying to put back into a system from which I have greatly benefited, I helped with a rugby programme at a leading Sydney school.

Early one Saturday morning, I was on the sideline watching the schools under-13s play. Educating the youngest team in the school is paramount in a rugby programme because what they learn in their first year will influence their next five.

The openside flanker in that team had a wild streak. Not a bad kid, but full of mostly good-natured mischief. However, he was spending more time outside the principal’s office than in class.

Which, not surprisingly, can be the perfect qualifications for a good openside flanker, who often have a mindset similar to that of Ned Kelly.


In my experience, these are great kids to coach because rugby can be their saviour.

That day as I stood on the sideline, our little 12-year-old Ned Kelly had chased a kick and was trying to hunt down the opposition fullback. Following his instincts, he bravely dived at the disappearing legs of his faster opponent. I clearly saw him miss his prey, except for the tip of the cleat on the fleeing fullback’s boot, which accidentally clipped the skin of the flanker’s forehead.

Our openside was left splayed on the grass. When he lifted his fingers to his forehead and saw his own blood, the little warrior crumbled and the frightened child emerged. The tears erupted as he panicked.

Now, in reality the cut was no more than a scratch but head cuts bleed profusely and this little bloke, with his blood in his eyes, lay on the ground sobbing. He was only a few metres from me so I walked on to the field and placed the pressure of the heel of my right thumb on the tiny wound to stem the blood. Despite my reassurances, he continued sobbing as his tears mingled with his blood and sweat.

Faced with a bleeding, crying boy, I am going to beg your forgiveness for the two statements that I uttered on that day.

‘He will have a lightning bolt on his forehead like Harry Potter.’ I thought that was funny. In retrospect, I may not have read the room correctly.

One of my mother’s many superpowers was her ability to stop little boys crying by distracting them with another subject. Like a dog that sees a squirrel, all is forgotten when a new topic is brought into focus.

As we waited for the medical staff to arrive, I quietly said to him, “You’re lucky. Chicks dig scars.”

My mother would have been appalled.

I know, I know. I deeply apologise. Yet, however crass the attempt, miraculously, the waterworks stopped.

He raised eyebrows asking “Really?” I theatrically nodded, still pressing my palm on to his tiny cut. He got the joke. The face-splitting grin that appeared was exaggerated by the oversized white gum shield protruding from his mouth. The medicos arrived and confirmed what I had thought. It was only a scratch. They wiped the little warrior’s face and he returned to the fray.

Feeling like I had done my good deed for the day, I returned to the sideline, only to be confronted by a highly agitated woman. Ned Kelly’s mum.

I was still wiping her son’s blood from my hands when she asked, “Will he have a scar?’

Here, once again I beg your forgiveness. I thought some humour might lighten the situation.

I smiled and quipped: “He will have a lightning bolt on his forehead like Harry Potter.” I thought that was funny. In retrospect, I may not have read the room correctly.

I will never forget the look of horror on her face as her tears erupted. At that moment I realised that any dreams of a future in the Australian diplomatic service were over.

I am telling you all of this because last Sunday morning while waiting for my bag at Barcelona airport, a complete stranger called out my name. Well, I thought he was a stranger. A tall, handsome young man, with an Australian accent, was shaking my hand and I did not have a clue who he was.

He reached up and held back the hair from his forehead revealing a small faded scar. “Chicks dig scars,” he said, with the same broad smile from all those years ago.

He told me that every birthday the story from that day is retold with laughter around his family table. Even his mum now giggled. While I was happy to hear that, I was hoping the entire saga may have been swept under a forgiving carpet.

After finishing a Business and Commerce degree he was now employed with a leading Australian bank. He had been in Dublin watching Ireland win the Six Nations while on a European holiday.

My little lunatic openside flanker had developed into an athletic, educated, gregarious and successful young man.

Just before we said our goodbyes he thanked me, saying that playing rugby at school had really helped him.

As I watched his broad shoulders stride off towards Barcelona, it struck me that when coaching our youth we rarely see the true fruits of our work bloom inside those we try to guide. In rugby, we say that the game itself is the greatest of teachers. Yet, like life, not all the lessons the game provides are immediately understood. Some take time.

It struck me that my childhood coaches had planted a seed inside my heart. The previous day I had the privilege of playing a small part in broadcasting to the nation Ireland’s winning Six Nations match from the Aviva. A direct link to those, now long-dead, educators who decades ago changed my life.

While the nation was obsessing over missed Grand Slams and championship wins, under our noses, within our schools and juniors, lives are being positively changed, almost miraculously, by kids experiencing the virtues of the game.

There is a tall young man, with a tiny scar on his forehead, walking about Barcelona who is living proof that blood, sweat and tears, when mixed with rugby, can change your life.