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.

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Rugby is everything in the Batten household. "Match is church," he said, adding that in South Africa, where he grew up, rugby is the national religion. Small wonder that the South African Rugby Union is the current holder of the Rugby World Cup. Whether after a big win or a crushing defeat, exuberant fans flood the streets wearing the country's signature green and yellow jerseys, shouting and honking their car horns.

Batten finds the American sports system "elitist." "The whole idea is that everyone should play," he said. "That's the difference between rugby and American sports, where only the best kids get to play."

Outside school, Danny Corbett lives a double life. He works at a golf course in Dublin, arriving at 6:30 a.m. and assisting others to play a quiet sport under calm conditions. But by noon he's off to play the Hyde to his Jekyll. The atmosphere at the field is strikingly different. Corbett joins young men who shout at each other, who grunt and breathe hard, who sweat and bleed and submit themselves to punishing hits.

Corbett first saw and fell in love with rugby while growing up in Ireland. That put him ahead of most players on the team like Kahangi, who did not get acquainted with the game until high school, when he wandered across the street and stumbled upon a team for players under the age of nineteen.

Such delayed training is the norm in the United States, but Nigel Melville, who has served as president of USA Rugby for the past two years, vows to change that. Corbett and Kahangi are two of the 55,000 high-school- and collegiate-level athletes playing the sport today, a 27 percent jump from 2006. Melville hopes to add 100,000 youth players before he leaves his post.

He credits much of this success to the one sport that beat out rugby years ago — football. Some players prefer rugby's continuous action and aggressiveness, Melville says, and the sport also gives players the ability to make personal decisions on the field and be self-coached.

Corbett agrees. Pointing to his head, he says the game is really about "the top two inches."

"It's definitely a thinking-man's sport," Corbett said. "You have to visualize what's going on: He's gonna do this so I gotta be over here."

He has little respect for football players who go to the sidelines for instructions or receive plays from coaches via microphones in their helmets. Even Batten admits there's not much he can do after the whistle blows. "Once they get on the field the game is theirs. You have no control over what happens next, and sometimes you just want to find some boots and shorts and get on the field yourself."

Fifteen minutes before game time, Kahangi strolled onto the field. He was starting on the B-team that day, but he came to check out Corbett's match. He was dressed entirely in black and wore oversized shades. "Go big or go home, right?" he jokes.

Kahangi is the poster boy for how rugby can change athletes off the field as well as on. He admits the sport has made him more focused and disciplined — not a surprising accomplishment considering the coaching he's had along the way.

"Cam's a good hooker," Corbett said. "When I met him last year we had this coach who was a first-class asshole and he whipped Kahangi into shape. He's come a long way."

The Gaels played sloppily against their greatest opponents, the East Palo Alto Razorbacks. The Gaels moved the ball to the 30-meter line, but a pass to the left wing slipped through his fingers and was picked up by a Razorback. They also made bad decisions. They hit the turf when they should have been driving and they drove when they should have been hitting the turf. At halftime Batten yelled at the players to "stop dropping the ball" and "blow them out of the ruck" (the name for the collision over the ball once the carrier is brought to the ground by the opponents).

But it was too late, and the Gaels fell further and further behind. With two more games until the playoffs, the pressure was on to blow past the remaining teams.

The last game of the season before the playoffs was do-or-die. It was also a game on foreign turf, against the San Francisco Golden Gate team. But the atmosphere in the lounge on Treasure Island was far from anxiety-ridden. The team crowded around a big-screen television watching a European rugby match. Corbett sat with his team, far from nervous. To him this was just another match: Win big or go home. That's been his team's attitude for most of the season. There's no such thing as a meaningless loss.

A ball tumbled out of bounds, and a disagreement broke out between one of the Golden Gate players and the referee. Gaels sitting on the sidelines mocked the player. "I'm on the field and you're on the bench," the player boldly replied. Some Polynesian Gaels cursed back in their native tongue. "When the trash talking starts you know there's a lot at stake," one player said.

The Gaels had to win by eight points to make the playoffs in Arizona. They played with intensity and soon were dominating the game. The Golden Gate players started to hang their heads and look defeated. And they were.

But the Gaels journey to the playoffs was short-lived. The men suffered a close defeat and were knocked out of the competition. A few tears hit the turf. They came close to their ultimate goal only to go home early. But the men played hard and gave it their all. And they'll be back.


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