It’s not a girl thing, it’s not a guy thing, it’s a beast thing
You’ve probably seen the bumper stickers.
Give Blood, Play Rugby.
Rugby Players Eat Their Dead.
Rugby! No helmet, no pads, just balls.
If Rugby’s too tough, there’s always football.
Jesus was a Hooker.
In a nutshell, Ruggers have a reputation for violence and being on the ‘not so bright’ side. After all, who throws the ball behind themselves rather than forward? The truth is that Rugby players are probably some of the most well-adjusted athletes on the planet. Rugby team members recognize the beast within. And like most animals, also recognize the importance of ‘pack’ or family. Those seem to be the two biggest reasons this sport is still around despite its minimal exposure and lack of support in the U.S. It’s a minor sport in college, if played at all, and clubs across the country sometimes play to an audience of only friends and family. But, that’s okay because they get so much more out of it than displaying their animal side to folks who just don’t get it.
For one thing, rugby players have bragging rights that their sport was being played long before American football was even a thing. Dating back to the 1820’s in England, the game was modified to the sport we know today in the 1840’s. The full history of Rugby will be saved for the future, but suffice to say, up until the 20th century, players often shared their fields with sheep and the ground was anything but level. The tenacity to keep this sport alive and well in the face of American Football and Soccer popularity is a testament to the attitude of the rugby players quoted in this article. They answered one simple question. “Why do you play Rugby?”
The gist of most answers was that regardless of where they moved and lived, rugby was a constant in their lives. It provided a family away from home that could be counted on, on or off the field. Most players started in college, but there were even some who played in high school and just kept going.
Erin Norton has been playing since high school, where it was taken more seriously with strong leadership and was even able to get a partial scholarship to play rugby in college. She didn’t care for the coaching style, which tried to change some of the fundamental things that make rugby such a unique sport. Missing the sport, she randomly played in some 7’s tournaments* and even joined club-side for a short time, but past injuries, knee surgery and the fact she feels she is getting a bit old (age 26) for the game have Erin being more of a fan than a player these days. However, she agreed that she would play again if there was a recreational league nearby and she got herself back into shape.
Now, on to the part that some people just don’t get. Across the board, all Ruggers agreed that the ability to drop one’s inhibitions and just ‘be’ was a primary reason for playing. As might be expected, the aggressive nature of the sport continues to be the primary reason most men play rugby. Joel, who has been in and out of the rugby world for 30 years explains that there is something about going out on the pitch and letting the ‘animal’ come out. The physical expression of the sport might leave him battered, bruised and sometimes even broken, but he can walk off the field knowing he gave as good as he got.
Interviewing some of the players on the women’s rugby team in Minneapolis reinforced proves that the guys don’t have a monopoly on that attitude. Even the name of their club exhibits a wildness. The Menagerie.
Gina “Gyna” Rice expresses it well (yes, rugby players have nicknames just like roller derby). “In a way, we all revert to our animal instincts and the pressures of life and society are lifted as we are all liberated from thoughts of how our hair looks, whether our facial expression is repulsive, or if the wild animal noise that came from our throats seemed uncivilized and barbaric. It’s manic, a mild insanity. Come Monday, we don our suits and uniforms, painted faces, and veils of composure. But every Saturday, we peel away those layers and express our bodies and emotions in their purest, most unapologetic and honest forms.”
Passionate “Rocky” agrees and is emphatic about how the sport embraces everyone, regardless of size or shape. “I love rugby because it is crazy, wonderful, and accepting. You see, I am a 6’1” skinny girl with scrawny arms and giraffe legs, but somehow I don’t play basketball or volleyball anymore, I play rugby. Rugby offered me something that all the other sports couldn’t – raw human contact and a true sense of community. The game itself is perfectly violent, competitive and challenging. I am a naturally energetic and aggressive human, not angry, but aggressive. I enjoy doing a good, solid tackle and appreciate when one is received. The type of people that play rugby can be a bit stranger, goofier and rougher than your average athlete and it’s frickin’ awesome. Rugby players also do not all look the same; some are big, some are tiny, some are long and gangly, but no matter your body size or shape there can be a position for you. Rugby is a million things and offers a million things. Rugby is brutal, fun, crazy, empowering, AMAZING. I may not be the best rugby player or even the most dedicated one, but I love the damn sport and all the crazies that play it.”
The family aspect of Rugby teammates is expressed by Alisha Berg, who says that rugby has been “the one constant in my life and from it I have created a family away from my own. I have also made friendships that will last a lifetime.”
It seems once in the blood, Rugby last a lifetime in some form or another. Many rugby players move on to the “old-timers” leagues once past their prime, usually late twenties or early thirties. Others become coaches and/or referees. Regardless of the reason behind the sport’s loyalty, one has to admit, this might just be the most inclusive team sports on the field.
At the international level, Rugby is quite popular and we in the U.S.A. can only hope that high schools and colleges will start taking it as seriously as it deserves and tossing a few dollars at it. Although we have a national team, it is sadly not in league with the likes of New Zealand, Australia, England or Wales. But where Rugby is played in this country, it is played with a passion and fervor not likely seen elsewhere. Because once a Rugger, always a Rugger.
*7s are teams make up of seven players per side rather than 15, are shorter and generally a more recreational version of the sport.