***image3***A poet once said that soccer is a gentleman's game played by hooligans while rugby, conversely, is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen. I forget which poet. Maybe Proust? Longfellow, perhaps. Or possibly Yeats.
No, wait. I remember. It was one of the guys on my college rugby team-a guy everybody called "Horse Cock"-who, as I recall, had just finished chugging beer from a rugby cleat when he offered his thoughts on the sport. And maybe he had somebody else's line but I nevertheless found it to be an apt appraisal.***image1***
Many people presume rugby to be a barbarous sport and its participants to be a barbarous sort. That is, if people presume-or know-anything at all about rugby. Most don't. But there's a civility to the chaos, a poetry to the pugilism that few see and even fewer realize.
One of the hallmarks of the game, especially in the United States, is its inclusive nature. If it bleeds, it can be bred into a rugby player. And anybody can play. Even if you couldn't tell a ruck from a scrum if someone spotted you the "uck" or the "crum" (which, coincidentally, nicely describe what it's like to be stuck in the middle of either), there's a place for you.
In fact, I knew that rugby was a place in England before I ever knew it was a sport. That nerdish knowledge alone would seemingly preclude me from competing in a game in which 30 men (or women) knock the snot out of each other, sans protective pads, in pursuit of scoring a try (or "touchdown" if all you speak is footballese). But the beauty of rugby is its egalitarianism.
The sport combines, on a rudimentary level, the finesse and strategy of soccer with the brute strength and speed of football. Except that it's-dare I say-more fun to play than either. And, unlike many other team sports, everyone can be simultaneously a star and a role player. No matter how many heads you butted, ribs you broke or mothers you verbally denigrated during the heat of competition, opponents become old friends as soon as the match ends and the traditional "third half" socializing begins.
A sport as seemingly violent as rugby would appear to be an ill fit in a city like Santa Fe, where every other car bears a "Peace Is the Answer" bumper sticker and every other City Council meeting includes an official declaration encouraging the federal government to end the war in Iraq. But that odd juxtaposition hasn't stopped the Santa Fe Rugby Football Club (SFRFC) from going strong for 35 years. And, in fact, the sport isn't nearly as brutal-nor the city as peace-loving-as it may seem.
That's not to say that rugby is for the faint of heart. After all, my collegiate career was ended by a succession of concussions incurred after I attempted to tackle one too many opposing players with my forehead. But, unlike an old girlfriend, rugby always welcomes you back no matter how many love handles you've added or hair you've lost.
Which is how I ended up standing on a field at the Municipal Recreational Complex on the outskirts of Santa Fe earlier this year, preparing for my first practice with the SFRFC men's team. Actually, I ended up there after watching a commercial for male body wash with my two best friends, Bacardi and Coke. But that's a long story.
The point is, I was there, seven years and 30 pounds past my prime. And I was welcomed with open arms. Open arms that were soon closed around my legs and driving me headfirst into the ground. I was only minutes into my first practice but the invigorating sting of fresh scrapes and throbbing bruises was kinda what I signed up for. Call me stupid. Call me a masochist. But once you get a taste for rugby, it's hard to turn away no matter how many neck braces you've been fitted for.
In this country, rugby is largely cultivated at the college level (as opposed to places like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa where children must learn to play it in kindergarten). But it's at the club level that passion for the game truly lives. And few clubs have stayed as strong for as long as the SFRFC. In 2006, the Santos opened its 35th season over Labor Day weekend when the club hosted its annual Fiesta 10s tournament.
Despite an ever-fluctuating roster, the Santos have long remained one of the best club teams in the state while competing in the Division II Rio Grande Rugby Union (alongside teams from Albuquerque, El Paso, etc.). The team's lineup features a wide age and occupational range, from recent college grads to 30- and 40-something artists, lawyers, engineers and, for a short time, even a journalist.
But I was just a pedestrian of pain, a carpetbagger of the chutzpah it takes to get off your ass and commit to a team, if only for a few hours a week. My tenure with the Santos was cut short after only a couple months by my decision to relocate out of state (Boo! Hiss!). But it was a kick in the balls (in the best way possible) while it lasted.
In the meantime, the Santos are marching on into the fall season-with an open-ended invitation to any and all who wish to join them-while the Rugby World Cup (which comes but once every four years) gets underway in France. In short, it's a perfect time to be a hooligan and a gentleman. Just like the poet said.