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“It’s that rare thing in fitness classes: fun”

Rugby brings back painful memories for Matt Rudd, the Sunday Times‘ fitness guinea pig.

The last time I played rugby, 21,000 years ago, I broke my nose. It was a lucky break, because it straightened out the bend from the previous break, which also happened playing rugby. After that, I took up tiddlywinks instead. Couldn’t risk the modelling career, could I?

Rugby is a tricky sport to dabble in, but England Rugby has a cunning plan to get more people involved. It is a simple cunning plan: an hour-long bargain fitness class culminating in a game of touch rugby, with music and sometimes a barbecue. The plan is working. There are now 321 O2 Touch centres around the country, with more than 17,000 registered members.

On a rain-soaked August evening, I arrive at Aylesford Rugby Football Club (“Home of the Bulls”) to find 25 people of most shapes and sizes warming up pitchside. There are the thick-necked wouldn’t-want-to-meet-on-a-dark-night rugger @#$%&, but there are also kids, dads and mums. If you set them against each other in a full-contact rugby match, it would be a bloodbath. Instead, our coach, Alister (“You can call me Al”), puts us through a range of blood-free high-intensity exercises.

We begin by handing the ball down the line, over and under, then left and right. There’s a musical chairs-type game and a variation on Ring a Ring o’ Roses, which might sound lovely, but is exhausting.

After that, Al hands us to Justin (“You can call me Justin”), who conducts us through 15 minutes of body-weight reps with exactly the same malicious grin my games tutor exhibited 21,000 years ago.

Half a punishing hour in, there is a game of rugby netball or netball rugby, depending on your priorities. When you receive the ball, you must stop. If you’re tagged, you must pass. It is that rare thing in fitness classes: fun.

When the time for the touch rugby game arrives, it becomes clear that the mums and I are a lot slower than the kids and the rugger @#$%&. On my team, three wingers and a girl who plays sevens for Saracens make all the running up the flanks. The mums and I try to look busy in the middle. It brings back dark memories of trudging around frozen fields miles from any action. But then the Saracens girl dislocates her thumb.

“It’s fine,” she says. “I popped it back in.”

Off she jogs, heroically, for an ice pack and I move up the pecking order. One of the fast kids looks over and realises he has no other option. The ball comes twirling. I catch it. Yay! I caught it. And now I’m running sideways. There is no way through. Someone calls for the ball and I pass it. It’s a beauty. Straight to the opposition, who run in for a try.

Everyone pretends not to mind. After all, this isn’t proper rugby. It’s only a fitness class. Honest.

£2-£3 per session; O2Touch.co.uk

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© 2019 Aylesford Bulls RFC Limited