A Hooligan's Game Played by (Olympic) Gentlemen
With the Olympics beginning this week in Rio de Janeiro, it's appropriate to recognize the longest running gold medal streak in U.S. history. Say what you will of the many dominant versions of The Dream Team, and their supremacy in the realm of international basketball, or the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team, who have captured America's heart time and again. You may also want to celebrate those men and women who compete in swimming and diving, track and field, and gymnastics, constantly redefining the boundaries of what is humanly possible with regard to speed, strength, endurance, and grace. Victorious as these athletes have been over the past several decades, their successes pale in comparison to those of the United States Rugby Team, gold medal champions since 1924.
I'll come clean, I may be stretching the truth here. It's a fact that the U.S. has not been defeated in Olympic rugby competition since 1924 in Paris. But it's also true that rugby has not been an Olympic sport since 1924. After those Games of the VIII Olympiad, some bonehead in charge of the Olympic committee, who presumably ate his own fingernails and sent packages of his own hair in the mail as gifts, decided to scratch the sport from the Olympic schedule. Until recently, that travesty... nay... that crime, had gone unrecognized by most and unpunished by the IOC or the Hague or whomever has the authority to tar and feather the jabroni that deprived the world of Olympic rugby for going on a century. With the greatest injustice in sport finally righted, I feel compelled to join in on the celebration and anticipatory buzz on the eve of such a triumphant return. Behold, my love letter/primer to the sport of rugby.
There is a good chance you've seen bumper stickers that read Give blood. Play rugby. Or a more crude message such as No pads. No helmets. Just balls. Or even Support your local hooker. Trite, overplayed messages like these fuel violent and barbaric stereotypes that can mar the sport’s reputation for many. Ask Grandma Ahearn what she thinks of rugby, and she’ll throw shade faster than American rugby sevens star Carlin Isles can run the length of a pitch (Note: Carlin Isles, “The Fastest Man in Rugby,” has been clocked at 10.12 seconds in the 100M, a scorching time that would have qualified him for the semifinals in the 2012 London Olympic Games).
But dig a little deeper. The big hits and absence of substantial protection may bruise the impressions many have of the sport, just as they do the bodies of those that compete, but team work, sportsmanship, and camaraderie comprise the core values of rugby and its culture. That's why you often hear ruggers refer to their sport as "a hooligan's game played by gentlemen."
I have played rugby since I was a wee boy. Not in the sense that I was all that young; I was 14-years-old when I first set foot on a pitch. No, I mean wee boy in that I was puny. Five foot two-ish on the first day of high school, I could fit securely in any of the lockers at Clay High School. I'm proud to say that through hard work and mental toughness, I have since grown from wee boy into the big, strong, mountain-of-a-boy that you (may) know today. But I digress...
Diminutive stature aside, I cut my teeth as a rugger with The Mercenaries, a combined high school team that taught me the fundamentals of passing, tackling, rucking, mauling, and how to most safely get clobbered by teenagers twice my size. For my four years of effort, I came away with a broken wrist, broken clavicle, and a concussion. I matured my understanding of game strategy and advanced my strength and fitness for the University of Notre Dame rugby team, newly reinstated after a 12-year exile from campus (broken ankle, concussion). I earned my tentacles playing summer social sevens rugby for The Krakens, hailing from the depths of Lake Michigan and competing in honor of the drowned god (no concussions, though I can't say the same for a certain Chicago Lions double-agent *cough Severyn*). I competed with and against former collegiate standouts and men with inhuman levels of old-man-strength up and down the eastern seaboard with the Washington Irish (concussion and torn acl). I even played in an international friendly against Clontarf, one of Ireland's most storied club teams, with former college teammates under the banner of the outside Irish (no concussions for me, but what say you, Andy "Killzone" Mullen?).
It may be apparent in this brief synopsis that my teammates and I have given a lot of ourselves to the sport in terms of time and health. However, my personal investment in the game has netted me exponentially more than I've given up. I'm confident that any athlete who has spent a significant amount of time playing rugby would share this sentiment.
Rugby is a brotherhood, or in the case of the incredible women that represent the sport, a sisterhood. I've been a member of many teams and organizations, most of which have yielded relationships and experiences of prime importance. However, the camaraderie, trust, respect, discipline, and work ethic inherent in rugby teams are a cut above. I met many of my very best friends in the world when we first became teammates on the pitch. Competing together during a match led to celebrating together in victory and defeat. Celebrating together led to sharing life's broader victories and defeats.
The welcoming culture demonstrated by every team that I've encountered is the most apparent display of camaraderie. And while matches will pit two teams against each other in high-impact competition, occasionally sparking some extracurricular physicality and colorful language during or between gameplay, examples of community abound after the final whistle blows. Step into a pub where the post-match drink up occurs, and you'll see bruised, bloodied, and soiled athletes sharing beers, singing traditional rugby hymns (few of which are politically correct or appropriate for the faint of heart), recounting the high points of the match... maybe even drinking beer out of an old rugby boot. You'll also immediately notice two colors of attire, representing the opposing squads, intermixed throughout the crowd. The same two goons that traded haymakers at an especially tense moment in the match now exchanging pleasantries over a pint, the sins and affronts of the altercation all but forgotten.
Rugby is uniting, and the gravity between clubs is especially apparent between teams immediately after a match. But find yourself in the right setting among ruggers past and present (frequently a bar, for better or worse), and you'll feel the welcoming pull just the same. Reach out to the local club in a new city for the chance to get a run in or join as a full-on member, and you'll be greeted like a first round draft pick. Out yourself as an rugby player or enthusiast in countries such as Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, France, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, and many more, and you'll be treated like a long lost cousin. In either scenario, don't be surprised if a pint is swiftly placed in your hand.
In 2012 I visited Ireland with a slew of former teammates from Notre Dame, their families, and my dad. A football game between Notre Dame and Navy provided a convenient excuse for us to hop across the pond, but if you ask any of us in the envoy, I'm certain that they would all point to our Outside Irish friendly match against Clontarf RFC as the highlight of the trip. After a hard fought, albeit sloppy match under the Friday night lights (many members of the traveling squad hadn't even played in several years), Americans and Irishmen alike shared tales from the pitch, rugby songs, and enough Guinness to drown a Big 10 school during St. Patrick's Day week until the wee hours of the morning. That night produced plenty of it's own legendary memories, many of which I'm sure I could step into Clontarf's clubhouse and recount with the Irish club's members to this day.
Rugby is all of this and so much more, and I've only hinted at the physical demands of the game. I think that may play a significant role in why rugby teams and players are so tight. At any moment, you could be one collision, one fall, one false step away from serious injury. Yet a team is dependent upon each and every player fulfilling a role to strengthening its attack and defenses, all in the pursuit of shared victory. Rugby is an inherently team-centric game. There are comparatively few individual stats recorded compared to other sports like football, basketball, or soccer. What's more is that superstars in rugby are often the most creative and proficient at creating success for their teammates. There is little place for selfish or individualist play.
For these reasons and so many more I love this sport. The folks that have reluctantly given up their playing days love this sport. The men and women who continue to grow rugby's tradition and aura love the sport. And with that in mind I find is so important to stress that what you (hopefully) will see on television over the next two weeks will represent not only highly drilled teams consisting of the world's most elite athletes. You will also see the pinnacle of a culture made possible by the dedication, enthusiasm, and camaraderie of players past and present, old and young across the world who have kept the game thriving since well before 1924.
Cheer for success our native USA Eagles in Rio. But cheer also that rugby's return to the Olympics marks just another milestone in the sport's ascent to mainstream recognition.
***A few notes about the style of rugby you'll see in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics:
- Players will compete in a stripped down version of the game referred to as Rugby Sevens. Seven players a side compete on a field originally designed for Rugby Union where 15 players for each team perform the scrums and line outs for which the sport is most often recognized. Fewer players means more speed and plenty of action.
- Rugby Sevens matches consists of two seven-minute halves. Easy, right? Anyone can run for two intervals of seven minutes, with a two minute break in between. Sure, but do so while trying to chase down and tackle some of the fastest athletes in the world, wrestle NFL-strong men off a ball, and change directions to avoid concussive hits. Trust me, it's anything but easy.
- Victory tends to favor teams the avoid contact while in possession of the ball. Keep a sharp eye on South Africa, Tonga, and 2016 RBS Sevens Circuit Champions Fiji. The grace and coordination with which they play can raise suspicions that the match is choreographed to favor these free-flowing teams.
- You will see scoring in the form of tries (similar to a touchdown in football, but requiring the player to ground the ball under control) and conversions. Lots of it. If the team you're pulling for is down by seven points or less with only seconds left on the clock, do not blink. Deficits can be erased, and fortunes can flip suddenly, and game-winning scores with time expired occur frequently.
- Finally, the USA Eagles, who have yet to quite summit the highest of rugby peaks, will trot out their most talented lineup ever seen. Carlin Isles and Perry Baker can take the corner on virtually any opponent in the world. Zach Test is one of the sport's all-time leading scorers. Nate Ebner - a former Ohio State opponent from my college days - is a transplant from the New England Patriots. Needless to say, this team will be a blast to watch.