Image: Ron Wurzer

"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?”

Image: Ron Wurzer

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.