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Mares: On Playing Rugby

10/12/11 5:55PM By Bill Mares
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(HOST) Commentator Bill Mares' playing days are long over, but the Rugby World Cup being played in New Zealand has stirred him to reflect on a sport once characterized as "a hooligan's game played by gentlemen."

(MARES) The bumper stickers capture some of rugby's machismo: "Give blood, play rugby" "Elegant violence"; "Rugby Players Eat their Dead."  But there's more to the game than that.

For a couple of weeks I have been sneaking peeks at the highlights of the Rugby World Cup now being played in New Zealand. Their beloved national team, the All-Blacks, is ranked #1, but hasn't won a championship in 24 years. The early rounds featured many blow-outs. But the winning margins will grow tighter as the tournament progresses.

Rugby is not a staple on America TV; I've seen more ultimate Frisbee there than rugby. In one sense, rugby is football without pads or blocking. But it's more a hybrid of soccer and football, with continuous play, quick kicks, flashy runs, graceful two-arm passes and the brute force of clashing rhinos. Its terminology is full of wonderful Anglo-Saxon monosyllables like: ruck, mark, try, lock, wing, hook and prop.

To fire up my memory boiler I went out to Essex Junction's rec fields on a recent rainy Saturday to watch the Burlington Rugby Football Club whip a Boston team named Old Gold in decisive fashion. I knew one player, Patrick Candon, who had played in high school and then at UVM. Coincidentally, he played the same position I had played long ago.

It took only a few minutes to recall the blood sweat and smears of yesteryear. Back came the comradeship, the easy-going practices, the rugged games. Back came the post-game beers and bawdy songs to salve the bruises. My college team had its own World Cup with guys from Australia, New Zealand, England, Tonga and South Africa. They brought a polite severity to the game. When tackled you're supposed to release the ball so that play may continue. I remember how one teammate, an English aristocrat, hacked with his cleats at a downed player, saying "Sir, you must get off the ball!"

Most colleges in Vermont play rugby as a club sport, but there's also a Vermont U-19 Rugby Association with teams of high school boys and girls who are drawn to its novelty. With 15 players on a side there's a position for every size and shape. Because there are only a couple of practices a week and games on the weekend, it's more civilized and kids avoid the year-round commitment of other sports. The downside is that there's no school support. It's pay to play and raising money for coaches, referees and playing space is a challenge.

While he nursed a sore neck and shoulder after his game, Patrick Candon said that one of most appealing things is that after playing hard, win or lose, players from opposing teams happily fraternize with each other.
That certainly meshed with my memory.  So, I say we should encourage more schools to adopt rugby. It's SO much cheaper than football. It has plenty of contact, and it engenders genuine sportsmanship, not the self-pity or morose monomania to win at all costs that afflicts so much of our sports culture.
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