Part of the reason Japan’s Rugby World Cup toppling of South Africa was so seismic is that rugby is a sport in which major upsets just don’t happen.
A motivated England side might just beat the All Blacks and a golden Scottish generation might cause a few Six Nations upsets, but this was much bigger than that. This was like Papua New Guinea beating Brazil’s footballers. This was the Albanian cricket team pitching up at Lord’s and gaining a hard-earned 10-run victory.
Shetland’s rugby side are well used to coming up against incredible odds – and meeting them. Sometimes this can be in their favour, as with their recent 95-0 demolition of Ellon. While the scoreline indicates a total mismatch, Ellon had gamely made the journey up with only 11 players. Even with Shetland offering them the services of a couple of players, Ellon made the trip knowing they would lose, not even with a shred of hope of getting the result.
Frequently, Shetland are the ones encountering problems in giving themselves even passable odds of getting a result on their travels. At this level, rugby is not so much a game of putting out the strongest team possible as much as putting out whatever team is possible.
Last season saw Shetland’s campaign decimated by point deductions for failing to fulfil fixtures against Moray and RAF Lossiemouth, to the point where February’s victory over Moray dragged the team out from having a negative point total.
In the summer, the inter-county in Orkney was essentially conceded to the neighbours from the start with Shetland unable to bring a full 15.
Rugby, it hardly needs saying, is a physically brutal and demanding game. The best teams in the world would struggle against the weight of numbers and without replacements to take the place of the players taking the brunt of the hits. For an entirely amateur team, the commitment necessary to compete in a league season involving a great deal of travelling and organising to ensure as full a squad as possible is significant.
So why do it? When in April, Shetland travelled to play RAF Lossiemouth, one of the league leading teams, they brought a squad of 12.
The final result was a 134-3 thumping, the only surprise being Shetland managed to get on the scoreboard with a penalty. In itself, this kind of fixture both raises and answers the question of why.
The rugby side are one of the only Shetland teams in any sport to field a side in a regular, mainland based league. In undertaking this, they are undertaking a great deal of challenges, but also a great deal of pride.
Can’t get a full team out to take on one of the best teams in the league? That’s fine – front up, don’t shy away and take the defeat with the pride of knowing that you gave it your all. This appears to be the attitude, and that’s admirable and praiseworthy.
Plus when they’ve taken hit after hit and delivered the occasional thrashing to a team with problems they can entirely relate to, occasionally a game of rugby gets played that reminds all involved why they fell in love with the sport.
The rescheduled game against Moray in February was a prime example of this. A cracker of a match against the team that eventually finished third in the league, Shetland were able to pull off a formidable 15-10 victory. The week before that, they came agonisingly close to a rare away win, Lochaber just about coming out on top 19-18. Thrashing a team may provide some joy, being thrashed a strain of pride in having confronted the odds, but there’s nothing like a tight, competitive fixture to exemplify the thrill of sport.
This season, Shetland have had a predictably difficult start. Whitewashing of Ellon, and heavy defeats to Deeside and Ross Sutherland aside, however, they have been extremely combative and competitive.
This being rugby, and the odds being usually against them, the results haven’t tended to go their way. But where there’s pride, heart and determination, there’s always hope. One need only look at Japan to understand that the right cocktail of attitude and ability means there are no foregone conclusions.
Photos: Kevin Jones