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It's a balmy October day, perfect for football, and fans carting blankets and coolers are streaming into the stadium of Holy Cross College in downtown Worcester, where they will cheer the host purple against the orange eleven of Princeton.
It's a picture-perfect day for rugby, too, although only a few hearty souls have made the trek to a hilltop field on the far side of the steep campus, where a match is in progress between the "A sides" first teams of the UMass and Holy Cross men's clubs, on a field serving as what in rugby is called "the pitch." A few dozen spectators are sprinkled across a grassy slope, watching the action unfold against a handsome backdrop of city buildings palely glimmering between hills bursting with color. From the pitch, shouts of "clear!" and "release!" and "support!" and occasional profanities, grunts and groans, crisply punctuate the soft air, echoed by similar exclamations and expletives from the fans, the majority of whom are "B" and "C" players totally engrossed in the action.
To the untutored American observer, this game played between goal posts, the primitive ancestor of American football, looks at first rather like the familiar game gone to seed. Or perhaps like some wild, improbable and not quite coherent amalgam of American football, soccer, basketball and group wrestling.
The players are constantly forming into great heaving piles, clumps or rings onomatopoetically called "rucks" or ''mauls," or "scrums." The impression of disorderliness derives in part from the fact that the action does not halt with a tackle and a pileup. There are no downs, huddles, or substitutions. Play is continuous, with occasional astonishing pop-ups as players hoist a teammate into the air to snatch for a pass, except when the ball goes out of bounds or the whistle blows for infractions. These may include failing to release the ball when you hit the ground, blocking, or making a forward pass. Forward kicks, on the other hand, are permissible by anyone at any time.
Scrums are ring formations that restart the game, rather like face-offs in hockey or jump-balls in basketball. The ball is rolled between the forward seven of each team, who've bound themselves into a "pack" by interlocking arms, legs, and necks. The two packs clamp together like huge horseshoe magnets and start pushing, a contest of raw will and brute strength. Rucks and mauls are slightly less organized versions of scrums after the ballcarrier is tackled (a ruck) or immobilized in an upright position (a maul).
These struggles for the ball culminate in one pack managing to "channel" the ball back through its ranks (sometimes by players pawing the ball backward with their feet) and into the hands of a waiting "free back." The backs like to line up, like so many geese, in a kind of half-V formation, ready to execute intricate series of two-handed lateral or backward passes one to the other. "Quick hands! Quick hands!" comes the encouraging cry as the ball is flipped from one set of hands to the next. And the action that had been roiling and congealed now suddenly breaks open and free.
All three UMass sides, distinguished by the maroon and white stripes on their sleeves, prevail today over their purple-and-white striped Holy Cross counterparts. Hobbling off the field at the conclusion of their match, the players receive pats on the backs from their coach, mentor, and advisor, Robert "Doc" Laurence, a bearded professor of chemical engineering who has been with the UMass rugby club since it started in 1968. He will chronicle the day's heroics in an entry on the club web page he maintains.
His troops today look like exhausted warriors. Blades of grass are pasted with sweat and dirt to their faces, arms, and legs. Wrist, ankle, and nose bandages dangle ripped and unraveled. There are many fresh bruises, cuts, and black eyes. Players are spitting out or chewing on their teeth guards the only allowable piece of protective equipment. And they're scowling and grumbling. Despite the final score, the game has not gone well. It's been "too sloppy, too scrappy," several players mutter. There has been one major casualty. Second row forward Michael Letellier is thought to have broken his leg in a tackle, causing an ambulance to be summoned. (The injury turns out to be a dislocated ankle.) This is the fourth injury of a key player this year.
Team captain and math and economics major Warren MacCallum, a tall, freckled Englishman with curly auburn hair, complains that today's referee was altogether too whistle-happy. Fullback Jay Gagnon, a senior in mechanical engineering, agrees. "We couldn't build up any momentum, any intensity," he growls.
"Yeah, it was a little sloppy," concedes the team's vice captain, flanker Glenn Gregory. "But hey," he adds cheerfully, gazing out to where the "C" sides have taken the field, "it's all about the 'W'" the win. He has put on a white canvas cap at a jaunty angle. A white feather is stuck in its colorful striped band.
The bonding between teammates that is an aspect of all sports is the absolute essence of rugby, and the players are generous in their praise of one another. Gregory introduces scrum-half Ryan Donahue, over whom he towers, as "my favorite kid on the team." The sophomore has "amazing instincts" and "the quickest first step off a scrum in the conference." Donahue blushes and smiles.
A certain battlefield solidarity in rugby is forged, players say, by its inevitable blows and battering. (Though Laurence contends that the rate of serious injury is one-sixth of that in football.) They play for the love of it, say these students. Many will tell you it becomes an addiction.
They're certainly not out there for glory. Rugby is a club sport at UMass, and "people aren't playing for scholarships," says Scott Desmond, a junior utility player. "They aren't playing for crowds. They're playing for people who know the game, for themselves and the people around them."
Whether you're a forward attempting to bind yourself to a teammate by locking limbs or even stuffing your head between his legs, or a back momentarily in possession of the ball in the open field, rugby is "all about giving support," says Daniel Armbruster, a senior center in environmental science. The prohibitions against blocking and forward passing make it almost impossible for any one person to break free for a long gain. Whoever has the ball has only one thought: how to give it away to a team member.
For all these reasons and others, the fierce loyalty of these players to each another ultimately extends to their opponents on the field. "It's such a weird game, " said senior loosehead prop Craig Martin as he stood on the sidelines midway through a UConn game, the grass-flecked sweat on his cheeks mingling with involuntary tears of pain from a just-broken collar bone. "I know after the game we're all going to get together, and the guy who tackled me is going to come over and make sure I'm okay."
One of the many ancient traditions of the game that the students prize is the after-match gathering for grog and song. Armbruster is the team's songmaster. He says he prefers the old Celtic ballads. Occasionally these events get a little raucous. The "limericks and Iyrics," in Laurence's words, can become a little risque. On the other hand, say the players, rumors of generally piggish behaviour come mostly from critics looking for sensational copy who entirely miss the point of their convivial fests.
If for many player the game holds a somewhat exotic allure, with its arcane lexicon and rules and misty old traditions, for the women it has an additional attraction: a chance to break the cultural taboo against female aggression.
"For many of us, this is the first time we've been allowed to play a full-contact sport," says Tara Efstathiou, scrum-half on the women's team and a senior theater major. "We're just as aggressive as the men," she adds. As she speaks, her teammates, under the direction of Coach Frank Caruso, are practicing tackles by making running, spread-armed leaps at tall, blue, oval dumbbells, which they grip and flatten on contact. Their teammates cheer them on lustily: "Go, girl!"' "Nice hit, Carrie!" and "Way to go, Rachel, you're an animal!"
Meghan Connolly, a twenty-year-old junior in environmental science, said she always loved rough and tumble sports, but never found a sport she really liked in high school. She showed her school spirit in the stands during football games, but always felt a little jealous "that it wasn't me out on the field."
Now she's in the fray as a prop in the pack. She loves the physical exhilaration, she says. She loves the "team feeling," the awareness of joining a lifelong community, that many of these players laud. It's worth every minute of it, she says, even when she wakes up Sunday mornings "feeling like I've been in a car accident." Judson Brown