What makes rugby so addictive?

by Wes "Brigham" Clark

Remember that old Saturday Night Live skit, where the two tradesmen meet for lunch and relate doing stupid and painful things to themselves? ("You know how you sometimes stick a Phillips screwdriver into your ear, and then start banging it with a hammer? I hate when that happens.") To many - maybe even most - of the public, rugby must seem like that.

There's a fellow who works with me who physically would seem to make a natural rugger: he works out during lunch and keeps himself fit. What's more, he has an aggressive, assertive attitude and occasionally gets in people's faces. Like me, he used to be in the Marines. Yet, when I occasionally invite him to rugby practice, he acts as if I'm inviting him to stick a Phillips screwdriver in his ear. "Y'all are crazy! I used to know a guy who played rugby. Broke his collarbone, arm and busted up his knee. He still plays! I ain't doin' that!" The reflective part of me (that I normally shut down on the pitch) is thinking he has a point. After all, as I write this I feel twinges of lower back pain from last Saturday's match, and it is only a day or so ago that I could touch my toes without a breathtaking pain stopping me short.

But I wistfully think about the epic conflict that caused that pain at work during meetings, oblivious to the "issues and concerns" being "expressed." (I hate workplace jargon.) We valiant members of Western Suburbs RFC drove four hours south to give the Raleigh, NC RFC a match on their home turf. We traveled light, so Yours Truly found himself playing a-side, or what my high school age lacrosse-playing son would call "varsity." Me. An a-side second row. At age 43. Diagonally-striped club jersey and all. (Note to ambitious b-siders: If you want to play a-side, travel.) Anyway, we weren't expected to win, Raleigh being the local Division II champs last fall. In contrast, our season started poorly with three losses. Deep down inside where we didn't vocalize it, we felt something like sacrificial lambs. But for about 35 glorious minutes in the first half we played rugby as well as they did. They attacked, we countered. We attacked, they countered. For nearly all of the first half neither of us scored, and the realization that we were extending ourselves into something better than we initially thought we were fueled us on, and our gallant captain inspired us by word and example. Then, the tide turned.

Our dashing young fly-half had to go out with a knee injury, and, setting myself up for scrums, I could feel the back injury I sustained during the prior weekend's Old Boys game becoming more painful and insistent. In one scrum, I couldn't push strongly. When we reset, I had difficulty remaining bound and caused my prop to get flung backwards violently. Finally, when I couldn’t even bend down to get into position for a third scrum, I knew I was done for the day. What a disappointment! I painfully limped off the pitch over to the shade, past Raleigh's many onlookers, and popped 1.2 grams (six 200 mg. tablets) of ibuprofen to numb the pain, and slowly sat down at a picnic bench with two women who were pretty much oblivious to the match, discussing children. I suppose in some primitive cultures sitting with the women would have made my humiliation complete, and so it felt.

We lost 6-45; I'm not sure how as I wasn't ambulatory during the second half. And while many of the a-siders manfully recycled to play the required b-side match, I found myself only capable of taking pictures for the club website, and helping to distribute water to players. (The b-side match was a lopsided 0-35 loss.)

But you know what? On my long drive back home with one of the club's stalwart forwards we started sharing notes. We traveled. We stepped up to play the game. Both of them. And while we didn't prevail, we did take a certain degree of satisfaction out of that first half. We felt bested but not beaten. Bloodied but not demoralized. And, personally speaking, I recognized the fact that unlike the great majority of my friends and co-workers, I dared to attempt such a thing. An eight hour roundtrip drive to play perhaps two and a half hours of this grueling game, in one day, at my age? Madness.

So given all this, what's the addiction of this game? The only answer I can come up with is that it must instinctively appeal to men who are genetically wired to do such things. Or, as Abe Lincoln once memorably said, "Those who like this kind of thing will find that this is the kind of thing they like." I was thumbing though an interesting book at the library the other day, entitled "The Dark Side of Man: Tracing the Origins of Violence," by Michael P. Ghiglieri. In it, Ghiglieri tries to reason why men commit crimes and wage war. (In addition to other nastiness. There was no chapter on rugby.) The war chapter was interesting. In it, Ghiglieri states that while it is true that men fight for home, love of country, defense, etc., what they're really fighting for is each other and for each other's survival and honor. I saw the quotes that I had seen in other works about war - "We had become brothers, or closer than brothers, the only people that would understand…" - and recognized the truth of the matter as it applies in a limited but associated sense to the game of rugby. There is stuff that goes on during practice and games that we cannot possibly explain at work. It isn't really sport, because bowling, softball or badminton is sport. Rugby is more than that. And after we've survived it, we've accomplished something. We've steeled ourselves, dared the fates, played ourselves to exhaustion and made life more real and much less commonplace. The extreme nature of rugby is what makes it addictive; perhaps the English schoolboys who invented the game were more in touch with that than we are.

A wise man describes the addiction well: "In our country, true teams rarely exist . . . social barriers and personal ambitions have reduced athletes to dissolute cliques or individuals thrown together for mutual profit . . . Yet these rugby players, with their muddied, cracked bodies, are struggling to hold onto a sense of humanity that we in America have lost and are unlikely to regain. The game may only be to move a ball forward on a dirt field, but the task can be accomplished with an unshackled joy and its memories will be a permanent delight. The women and men who play on that rugby field are more alive than too many of us will ever be. The foolish emptiness we think we perceive in their existence is only our own." - Victor Cahn

Oddly enough, I will always have an unshackled joy remembering that match at Raleigh, despite the defeat.