They Like It Rough
Need an elbow to the jaw and a friendly pat on the back? Try rugby.
"A HOOLIGAN’S GAME played by gentlemen.” This is how Kevin Flynn, the Seattle Rugby Football Club’s London-born coaching director and starting fly-half, described the sport of rugby as I sat with him and three of his club mates at Paddy Coynes Irish Pub on a Monday night. He smiled as he said it. He was missing a tooth.
Despite its brutal nature, rugby is one of the most popular sports in the world, with the 2007 Rugby World Cup drawing a global television audience of 4.2 billion, behind only soccer’s FIFA World Cup and the Summer Olympics in viewers. Often referred to as “the grandfather of American football” for obvious reasons, rugby still differs from its Stateside offspring in many ways: There are no forward passes in rugby; there are no downs; there is no blocking; a “try” is worth five points, to a touchdown’s six. But easily the most noticeable difference between football and rugby is that rugby players wear very little protective padding. In most cases, none.
“Injuries? Oh, yeah,” laughed Flynn. “Mostly ears, nose, facial lacerations.” He pointed to his mouth, again flashing his not-quite-complete grin. “Teeth.”
“Lots of shoulders, too,” said Adam Pugh, a fullback for the team and the club president. “Who here has had a shoulder injury?”
Proudly, everyone at the table raised their hand. I shifted nervously in my chair.
Later that week I stood on the sidelines at the men’s practice as the Sevens team warmed up with a game of two-hand touch. Sevens, a faster style of rugby played with only seven men a side, is what the SRFC plays in the summer months; the club returns to the traditional 15-per-side game in fall. This practice was to be the last before the team traveled up north near Bellingham for July’s highly competitive Can-Am Sevens tournament. Fraser Brumell, the club’s recruitment director, stood on the sideline and listed the nationality of each player as he raced by. “Chile. Tonga. New Zealand. Australia. That guy?” His finger followed a player weaving between defenders. “He’s from Zimbabwe. I counted once: I think we have 13 countries represented.”
I’d shown up to the practice in shorts and running shoes, hoping to get in on the scrimmage should Ilisoni Maisema, the team’s Fijian coach, agree to it. I’d been told this practice would be noncontact, but remembering Flynn’s gap-toothed smile from the night before, I’d stopped to buy a mouth guard on my way to the field, just in case. I was glad I did. Many of these guys were big, most were fast, and all of them were serious about what they were doing.
“The good thing about rugby is that if you can run in a straight line, and if you can tackle, then you have the skills to play the game,” Flynn said. But when my chance to take part in the scrimmage finally arrived, running in a straight line was about as easy as walking in a straight line after a night at the bars, thanks to a smothering defense. In fact, running forward at all was often a mistake, as it put me ahead of the ball carrier and made me ineligible to receive a pass. Imagine playing basketball and only being allowed to pass to teammates in the opposite direction from the basket you want to score in.
To a spectator, rugby looks very much like the final, desperate minutes of a football game, with players heaving lateral passes to each other and scrambling to avoid being tackled. But, instead of a rare occurrence, this is the game. On defense, all the cutting and dodging combined with no-look, over-the-shoulder passes made keeping track of the ball like trying to guess under which cup a sleight-of-hand street magician is hiding a nut. It was what I imagined it must be like to play against the Harlem Globetrotters.
"Injuries? Oh, yeah," laughed Flynn. "Mostly ears, nose, facial lacerations." He flashed his not-quite-complete grin. "Teeth."
Eventually, after many friendly reminders from the team, I began to hold my position behind the ball carrier on offense, making myself a legal target for passes. On defense, again thanks to much coaching, I learned to move laterally along the offensive line, forcing our opponents to unload the ball. I never got the hang of passing, though a few of my attempts did wobble their way into a teammate’s hands. By the end of the scrimmage, I was breathing hard. “Yeah,” said Pugh, grinning when he saw me trying to catch my breath. “The fitness is more like soccer than football. You’re always running.”
Every SRFC member I spoke to said he or she was in the club for two reasons. Jen Sporleder, the club’s chair of the board of directors and a retired center for the women’s team, credited “the addictive nature of rugby” partly to the bond shared by teammates and by rugby players around the world. But more than for the social aspect, SRFC members said they played out of pure love for the sport of rugby, and the relaxed laughter of the team at their practice proved it. As Flynn explained it, again with his smile speaking volumes, “When the whistle blows, that’s it for me. That’s what my week is all about.”