A Hooligan's Game for Gentlemen 

Rugby is pushing its way into the mainstream sports arena as more young athletes are choosing the underground game over American pastimes.

Big hit, Cameron Kahangi thinks. Big hit.

A wall forms behind the nineteen-year-old hooker. Each player interlocks his arms and legs with those of his brethren, shoulders bracing, knees on the ground. The other team does the same.

"Engage!" shouts the referee.

The two sides collide, letting out a deep grunt that echoes off the ground. They push harder, dig deeper, until the ball enters the huddle, known as a "scrum." Kahangi kicks the ball back to the scrum-half, a player who is waiting at the back of the formation. The scrum breaks and the defense spreads itself across the field, waiting for the next forward movement, or "phase."

The men of the Diablo Valley Rugby Club's Olde Gaels devote every weekend of the spring to a sport that roughs up their bodies but offers little in the way of appreciation. They have no hopes for scholarships, and even at the collegiate level they will receive no recognition as NCAA athletes. But rugby is not without its rewards. "This game gets under your skin," said head coach Harry Batten. Most players plan on playing as long as their bodies hold up.

After the game all but evaporated in the United States following the 1924 Olympics, it remained underground, kept alive by just a few dozen men's clubs in California and the Northeast. Now the Olde Gaels are one of but a thousand men's clubs around the country. And despite having to overcome neglect, insufficient resources, and the absence of concrete incentives, more and more kids are starting to choose the game over other American sports. This year, ESPN broadcast collegiate matches and NBC featured national games.

The Olde Gaels contrast themselves with football and soccer players they view as egomaniacal. As proof of their sport's superiority, they point to its continuous action, the flexibility to play both offense and defense, and the gentlemanly aspects of the game. After all, when the match ends, rivals shake hands and share beers, the violence a distant memory.

Kahangi and his teammate Danny Corbett are fond of the old saying "Soccer is a gentlemen's sport for hooligans. Rugby is a hooligan's sport for gentlemen."

History seems to bear them out. Rugby has always been an upper-middle-class sport played primarily by those who could afford the best education. The hooligan's game favored by gentlemen started where many gentlemen also get their start — on the playing fields of boarding schools in England. During the 1830s, high-school boys brought the game to Oxford and Cambridge and started challenging other universities to compete against them.

Rugby arrived on American soil in 1874 through the collegiate system, when McGill University took their English expats down to Harvard. The Boston players were accustomed to a simple carrying game, but they were soon enthralled by a version that was both faster and continuous. Each time a Canadian ball carrier was tackled and fell to the ground, he pushed the ball to the back of the pile, where a teammate was waiting to pick it up and throw it laterally to an adjacent player. The ball moved up the field that way: lateral passes, forward movement, and, eventually, if the scheme proved successful, a final down in the end zone. Harvard adopted this method of nonstop, physically demanding play and taught it to their rivals, such as Yale. Other universities soon picked it up.

But rugby met its demise with the creation of American football. Long downfield passes set the stage for displays of showmanlike athleticism while thick pads permitted harder, more aggressive contact. In addition, the rules of rugby were not codified in the states. By contrast, Walter Camp, the grandfather of American football, set about systematizing the American version, drawing from such homegrown ideas as management, industrial efficiency, and heavy military influence. The scrum evolved into a scrimmage line, a more organized formation that allowed teams to huddle beforehand, design plays, and then start action again.

By the end of the 1924 Olympics, rugby had faded from the memory of most Americans. When the New Zealand All Blacks brought their tour to the United States, they found just eleven players to make up an opposing team that normally would be comprised of fifteen.

During the drive to the field, Olde Gaels Coach Harry Batten and club manager John Compaglia talk about the news that Eddie O'Sullivan, the winningest coach in Irish football history, has just been named head coach of the US national team. The participation of such a prestigious figure is yet another accomplishment in a banner year for USA rugby. But the men are less than enthused. Batten knows firsthand that the inexperience of US players, not the level of coaching, has been the greatest obstacle to success at the international level.

"In many cases these guys have less than three or five years of experience," Compaglia explained. "In England that would make them about eleven years old."

When they arrived at the field, the team was already getting psyched up. "Make sure they pay for it if they try to get their hands on our rock," one of the players shouted in a huddle, rugby talk for "maintaining possession," Batten's first and foremost strategy for winning.

The rest of the game plan? Don't make predictions. Plans, Batten says, can crumble in the first five minutes of a match. The best he can do is give general instructions about the multiphase game he wants his team to run. He orates these calmly but forcibly.

"Don't dive, stay on your feet!"

"This is a simple game, remember that!"

About two dozen fans sprinkle the bleachers when the game begins. A few more straggle in, but compared to the baseball game on the other side of the fence, the crowd is small. But the men nonetheless play hard, and after a solid victory Batten sits on the bench and enjoys a Coors with the team's hooker.


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