Just Not Mine (Escape to New Zealand)By: Rosalind James
Just Not Mine: Escape to New Zealand, Book Six
The Combat Zone
Hugh Latimer had his eye on the ball.
Fifteen minutes left in the deciding game of the Rugby Championship, the score, despite every desperate effort, stuck at 14 to 6 in favor of the Springboks, and the capacity crowd of fifty thousand South Africans at Loftus Verfeld was sniffing victory, baying for All Black blood.
The noise was a physical thing, an assault, but it didn’t matter. There was no pain, no sweat, no fear. Only one thing mattered. Where was the ball, and how could he get to it and take it back.
The Boks were moving fast. Jan Strauss, the blazing winger, took the pass and was off with a burst of acceleration. Hugh read the tiny movement of his head that signaled one of his deceptive jukes, saw the line he was aiming for, and was into space in that fraction of a second to cut him off. He brought him down in a bone-jarring tackle a bare five meters from the tryline, sprang to his feet and went for the ball, keeping his balance to avoid the penalty that would put the chance of victory beyond reach. He planted both feet hard and solid, kept his body weight low, and used every bit of strength in his hands, arms, and shoulders to wrest the ball loose from Jan’s grasp.
He was aware of Liam Mahaka barreling in in support, his ferocity, as always, undiminished by the gash to his head that had sent him to the blood bin for stapling minutes earlier. But Hugh wasn’t thinking about that either. He kept his focus on the ball. That was his target. That was his only goal.
He felt the moment when he won, began to pull the ball to his side of the line even as he saw all hundred-twenty kilos of Flip van der Jongh bearing down on him in a desperate attempt to wrest it back. Flip’s right eye was nearly closed, the area around it angry, red, and swollen, the injury only increasing his determination. Flip dove, his elbow cracked into Hugh’s left hand where he had the ball in a death grip, and Hugh didn’t let go, because that wasn’t an option.
He barely felt the impact at all, because the ref was blowing his whistle, and the ball belonged to the All Blacks, and he had won. He sent the ball fast to Nate Torrance for distribution, and saw, as he got himself back into position, that Toro had immediately offloaded it himself to Nic Wilkinson behind the tryline, who got it off his left foot and safely to midfield. The try was saved, the disaster averted. For now.
Hugh wasn’t celebrating. He was sprinting the moment the ball left Nico’s foot, calculating angles, assessing the Boks’ positions. Jean le Vieux, the centre, was running straight at Kevin McNicholl as Hugh had expected, testing the buggered foot that had been obvious from twenty minutes into the match. Kevin threw himself in for the tackle with undiminished courage, and Hugh was there in support, going for the ball again.
Except that he couldn’t, because his left hand was crocked. He’d hardly noticed the pain, but he couldn’t move his thumb, couldn’t grab at all, couldn’t tackle. He was useless.
No hope. No choice. He was jogging off the field, his replacement running on. His game was over, and he was on the sideline with an ice pack strapped to his hand, ten minutes left in the match and the big screen still showing 14 to 6, two scores away from a win, and nothing left to do but watch.
He had something cheering to watch, for a while. Four minutes out, and the All Blacks were driving. Koti James had the ball, was breaking the line, throwing a head-fake one way, making a couple seemingly impossible changes of direction, drawing three tacklers and offloading the ball at the last possible half-second out the back door, a quick flip from his left hand to Nate. The ball in and out of the skipper’s hands in a flash, and before the Springboks could react, Kevin again, somehow still managing to run on that foot, crashing his big frame over the tryline in the corner, miraculously keeping his left foot off the chalk that marked the touchline, and Hugh was rising with the rest of the men on the bench in exultation, because that was surely a try, and they were in with a chance.
But both men had paid the price. Koti had been hit so hard his mouthpiece had gone flying, he’d crashed to the turf in a heap and hadn’t risen again, and Kevin had pounded that foot once too often and was hobbling up now, trying to get back to midfield, but he wasn’t going to make it. The trainer was bent over a still-prone Koti even as Nico was nailing the kick and making the score 14 to 13, which was so close, but Koti and Kevin were gone too, and the chances had just got even slimmer.