A Hooligan’s Game Played By Gentlemen: Rugby in America

80 minutes. That’s all it takes. 80 minutes for two teams to come together and compete not only in a contest of strength, but also in a contest of will. With 30 men on the field, sprinting full-tilt for every second of the game, yelling bloody murder to make sure their teammates hear them among the noise from their opposition, and the underlying stench of dirt, sweat and blood, a person might think they were watching a battle unfold. Fortunately,  these people have just come to watch a fine day of rugby out on the pitch.

Believed to have started in 1823 by a gentleman in England named William Webb Ellis, rugby has flown under the radar in the United States for the past few decades, giving way to its American cousin: football. Although, we know why there is a “touchdown” in football, and why there is an “offsides” call, and even why there is a line of scrimmage. It’s all because of rugby.

Martin Pengelly, a writer for The Guardian, put it perfectly when he said, “In America, rugby is a grassroots game: most fans own and use a pair of boots and a mouthguard.”

From experience, I can tell you that Pengelly hit the nail on the head with that one. Rugby has always been the black sheep of college sports, and for good reason. If you ask your mom and dad, or your aunts and uncles if they knew any rugby players when they were younger, they’ll probably give you a wide-eyed look that says, “You don’t wanna know.”

Take away this stigma, and rugby is one of the most beautiful games in the world. There are rules and regulations meant to protect the integrity of the game, and most importantly players’ safety. However, when it comes down to it, rugby is a brutish game. It comes down to using nothing but your own body, without pads or protection, to fight tooth and nail against the man across from you. For me, the minutes before a rugby game are the most difficult, like you’re hanging on by a thread and once you hear that first whistle; snap goes the thread.

The New Zealand All Blacks, who stand as the most prolific rugby team in history, know this feeling of preparation better than anyone. Before each game, they perform a sacred war dance known as the Haka. To outsiders, the Haka may seem unnecessary, with the players screaming and performing the dance with all their might. However, what those outsiders don’t know is that the Haka is a Maori war dance performed by the ancestors of the New Zealand players. The Haka calls upon the spirit of the players’ ancestors to give them strength, and the players chant sacred words that tell the other team, “We call upon the power of our ancestors to give us strength, and to prepare us for this battle, for we are ready to give our lives upon this field, and we now extend that challenge to you.”

It’s the grit, the will and the tenacity that gives rugby players our reputation. These ideals also let us carry on with our oldest tradition: camaraderie. After 80 minutes of kicking the “you know what” out of the man across from you, you get to enjoy the best part of the day when both teams go to the local bar and you can buy that man a well-deserved beer.

“Drink-ups,” as they are endearingly referred to as, are a staple of rugby culture. Pretty much every team in the United States has a home bar that is used for socials and events for the teams. After every game, the home team invites the away team back to the bar and make sure that they are welcomed like brothers. A game like rugby brings respect to peers, not animosity.

It’s at these drink-ups that people see the real side of rugby, with everyone coming together to celebrate the fact that we are able to play this wonderful game, and that everyone can stay safe and continue to enjoy the game well into their golden years.

In 2019, a new professional rugby league is going to start in the United States under the name Major League Rugby (MLR). Hopefully, with all games being broadcast on CBS and ESPN, rugby might pick up some momentum in the U.S. and before long, it might be at the forefront of American sports and entertainment.

Although, for the time being, I’m going to enjoy being a rugby player and what that means. To someone reading this who has never heard of or watched rugby, what I’m saying probably sounds like nonsense, or that I think too highly of rugby if I’m comparing it to American Football. But for all my comrades out there, for all my gentlemen playing a hooligan’s game, I hope we can keep this spirit alive so that rugby’s “grassroots” beginnings are never forgotten, and in turn, neither will our love of the game.

Cheers gents.