How Sport Rescued My Relationship With My Son

When James Harrington moved to France with his family, his all-consuming obsession with his work nearly led to the end of his marriage and the breakdown of his relationship with his eldest son, Robert. But their mutual love of rugby pulled them both back from the brink ...

How Sport Rescued My Relationship With My Son
Robert, left, and James

Give my eight-year-old son, Robert, a ball and space to run and he is the happiest boy alive.

Any shape or size of ball will do, but he especially loves rugby. That’s a family thing. He loves rugby because I love rugby. And I love rugby because my dad, Michael, loves rugby. In another universe, it could have been cricket – a game I also adore. Or tennis. Or, and it’s allowed in a World Cup year, football. In this universe, though, it’s rugby.

He has recently discovered video games – but his interest rapidly wanes, even when playing Rugby Challenge or Fifa. The simple, unadulterated pleasure of a ball, though, keeps him entertained for hours. He’s outside, now, as I type this, kicking his football around rather than watching England play Belgium in the World Cup third-place play-off.

On Monday, he starts a five-day rugby camp. He can’t wait.

Any dad – any parent – worthy of the name should want to be involved with this. I know I do. ‘Doing passes’ is a thing for us just about every evening as long as time and the weather allows. As soon as I finish this, I’ll be out there with him, until we get called in for tea.

It wasn’t always like that. When he was born in 2010, I was going through what my wife and I can now laughingly term ‘a rough patch’ at work. I was distant and distracted and working seven days a week. Work-life balance happened only to other people. I’d lost anything approaching perspective – and I was too pig-headed to admit it.

It was a stupidly noble mistake we’d SUFFER for nearly four years. And in that time, Robert was born

A year earlier, we’d left cosy, slightly rutty, jobs in England for the chance of a new life in France. I moved first – a month before my wife. It took me about two days to realise the job, the company and I were not going to mix. But we’d sold our house, my wife had quit her job on the promise of one with the same company in France, and we’d given up our daughter’s nursery place. We had no place to live in the UK. No jobs. And no childcare.

So, I took the burden of inevitability, and swallowed it down.

It was a stupidly noble mistake we’d suffer for nearly four years. And in that time, Robert was born.

He was a fussy baby. He would feed for a few minutes at a time then demand attention I felt unable to give. So it fell to my wife, shattered, breastfeeding, and still recovering from giving birth, to care for him and our then three-year-old daughter as I pretty much shut down and shut everyone out.

Bathtime was supposed to be my time with him. I had lived for this part of the day when our daughter, Eleanor, was a baby – and it had the added bonus of giving my wife a bit of a break. But, with Robert, it was a chore. He didn’t like being bathed, and I didn’t enjoy bathing him.

We had to choose between our jobs and our marriage

Ironically, I had recently landed a promotion at work, which would only make things worse. More than two years of overwhelming stress and regular arguments with my wife – I couldn’t bear to let her understand – would follow. Years of missing out on the life and love of my family – before, between us, we were finally brave enough to stare a stark choice in the face. We had to choose between our jobs and our marriage.

We chose our marriage. Work had threatened to tear us apart. But we were stronger than that. What followed was not easy. Briefly, we quit with nowhere to go and nothing lined up, fled the expensive house we rented and had grown to resent, moved into a smaller, cheaper flat, and set out on the risky path of freelancing.

For the first few months, we had next to nothing. We used the local food bank. We eked out every penny and sweated on the post bringing bills we couldn’t afford, before we got a break with unemployment benefit and the first drips of work.

In the dark times, the only constant for Robert and me was rugby

I know how much this period hurt my wife. Certainty was a thing of the past. We had only each other, and I’d fallen short of the good husband and father standard for some time. Couples have divorced for less than this – and, yet, she stood by my side. Looking back, I’m not certain I’d still be here if she hadn’t.

Slowly, unsurely, things began to get better. We found work – and then some more. My deep blue funk began to fade. We landed more work. And, slowly, terribly slowly, I began to realise what I’d been ignoring. What I’d been missing all this time – I have a family who love me.

In the dark times, the only constant for Robert and me was rugby. It resuscitated my love for the oldest of our two sons. There are photographs of him as a baby in my arms watching it on TV. Those 80-minute periods were, for a while, about the only times we came close to connecting.

There are six-year-old pictures of us playing with a foam rugby ball. Now he is old enough to be a member of the rugby school at our local club in France, there are pictures of him there, too.

A couple of seasons ago I volunteered to help coach him and other rugby-mad children of his age. For two hours every weekend – and at tournaments at neighbouring clubs – it was me and him and them living the fun and games.

The positive effect of that short time, of rugby, on our relationship is incalculable. I owe it more than I could ever describe.

I love to see the joy on his face when he’s let loose with the ball and the space to run

It is easier to herd cats than it is to control a dozen or so excited under-sixes who just want to chase a ball around a field, so the coaching team doesn’t really try. There’s a warm-up, some token skills training, and then a game, which is all they care about. The important thing – the only thing that matters – is that they have a good time, get a bit sweaty, a little tired and a lot muddy, and head home happy.

Which he does. He adores chasing about the park with his friends on Saturday mornings and Wednesday evenings. And I love to see the joy on his face when he’s let loose with the ball and the space to run. And when he scores a try, well …

Every time I see it, I know in my bones that I’d be willing to break the world just to see that smile one more time. Fortunately, for the world at least, I just have to go to the training ground to catch him scoring a try.

Improving work commitments meant I had to give up the coaching thing after just one season. But you can be sure I am there as often as I can manage.

We go to almost all our local professional club’s home games – where we cheer and shout and throw our arms in the air and share a secret box of chips that his mum definitely knows nothing about. If our team win, we’re delighted – over the moon, you might say.

If they lose, we’re disappointed. But no matter, there’s always the next game. The next couple of hours when it’s him and me, and 9,000 or so other people, and our team. Our joy.

I’m the luckiest man alive. It just took rugby and giving up my job for me to realise it

We watch rugby on TV. He burrows under my arm and we talk about the game as it unfolds. If he sees a dangerous tackle, he tells me – in the serious manner only an eight-year-old can adopt – and with accompanying demonstration of how a tackle should be made. He recreates tries in slow-motion on the rug in front of the TV better than anything the broadcasters can manage. He joins in the haka ahead of any game involving New Zealand.

Rugby is our joining line, whether it’s a father-and-son hour or so chucking a ball about outside, matches on TV, mini rugby or big games at the local stadium.

Yes, my wife and 12-year-old fencing-mad daughter also enjoy the game and our youngest son, whose birth four years ago marked for me the end of the darkest part of our dark period, happily come to matches, but – for the most part – rugby is mine and Robert’s thing.

You know something? I’m the luckiest man alive. It just took rugby and giving up my job for me to realise it.