Commentator Bill Mares’ playing days are long over, but the Rugby World
Cup being played in New Zealand has stirred him to reflect on a sport
once characterized as "a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen."
The bumper stickers capture some of rugby’s machismo: "Give blood, play
rugby" "Elegant violence"; "Rugby Players Eat their
Dead." But there’s more to the game than that.
For a couple of weeks I have been sneaking peeks at the highlights of
the Rugby World Cup now being played in New Zealand. Their beloved
national team, the All-Blacks, is ranked #1, but hasn’t won a
championship in 24 years. The early rounds featured many blow-outs. But the winning margins will grow tighter as the
Rugby is not a staple on America TV; I’ve seen more ultimate Frisbee
there than rugby. In one sense, rugby is football without pads or
blocking. But it’s more a hybrid of soccer and football, with continuous
play, quick kicks, flashy runs, graceful two-arm passes and the brute
force of clashing rhinos. Its terminology is full of wonderful
Anglo-Saxon monosyllables like: ruck, mark, try, lock, wing, hook and
To fire up my memory boiler I went out to Essex Junction’s rec fields on a recent rainy Saturday
to watch the Burlington Rugby Football Club whip a Boston team named
Old Gold in decisive fashion. I knew one player, Patrick Candon, who had
played in high school and then at UVM. Coincidentally, he played the
same position I had played long ago.
It took only a few minutes to recall the blood sweat and smears of
yesteryear. Back came the comradeship, the easy-going practices, the
rugged games. Back came the post-game beers and bawdy songs to salve the
bruises. My college team had its own World Cup with guys from
Australia, New Zealand, England, Tonga and South Africa. They brought a
polite severity to the game. When tackled you’re supposed to release the
ball so that play may continue. I remember how one teammate, an English
aristocrat, hacked with his cleats at a downed player, saying "Sir, you
must get off the ball!"
Most colleges in Vermont play rugby as a club sport, but there’s also a
Vermont U-19 Rugby Association with teams of high school boys and girls
who are drawn to its novelty. With 15 players on a side there’s a
position for every size and shape. Because there are only a couple of
practices a week and games on the weekend, it’s more civilized and kids avoid the year-round
commitment of other sports. The downside is that there’s no school
support. It’s pay to play and raising money for coaches, referees and playing space is a challenge.
While he nursed a sore neck and shoulder after his game, Patrick Candon
said that one of most appealing things is that after playing hard, win
or lose, players from opposing teams happily fraternize with each other.
That certainly meshed with my memory. So, I say we should encourage more schools to adopt rugby. It’s SO much
cheaper than football. It has plenty of contact, and it engenders
genuine sportsmanship, not the self-pity or morose monomania to win at
all costs that afflicts so much of our sports culture.