Rugby's Mass. Appeal
(by Andrew Blake, Boston Globe, 10/11/98)
When he was a college freshman, Wakefield's David (Buzzy) Rudzinsky found the poster's invitation too appealing to pass up: "Meet behind the gym. Free beer. Bring sneakers."
The free beer was the clincher.
"There was no beer. Instead we went on a 3-mile run and when we were through, the guy in charge said this was an introduction to rugby," Rudzinsky related.
Eventually, after he joined the rugby team, Rudzinsky did get his free beer at a pub near the campus of the University of Rhode Island. The decision to play rugby 18 years ago, said Rudzinsky, was one of the best choices in his life.
"I've watched the game grow around here. It's taken me all over the country and around the world. I met my wife at a rugby match in Malden," said the computer systems specialist.
Rugby, a game started in England about 175 years ago and the inspiration for American football, is now played throughout New England and the nation as well as in more than 100 countries.
Rudzinsky, 36, like so many others from the North Weekly region, plays for and is devoted to the Mystic River Rugby Club, headquartered in Malden, or the "Mystics" as they call themselves. He also maintains the club's Internet Web site.
"Our goal is to grow the team, to grow rugby from the people here. When I was growing up, I played football and some soccer. There was no rugby.
Now almost every college has a rugby team and a number of high schools around Boston have added rugby to their sports programs. There are women's rugby teams, too," he said.
Rudzinsky and others at the Mystic River Club also volunteer as coaches. These days he mostly plays for the "Old Boys" division, those over age 35.
About 90 percent of the Mystics are American, but that figure has varied to about 100 percent American to less than 90 percent in the 24 years that the Mystics have been in existence, according to Rudzinsky.
"It keeps you in pretty good shape. I ran the Boston Marathon in 1990 with no training except for playing rugby," he added.
The current captain, Declan O'Riordan, 32, a native of Ireland and a former Salem resident who now lives in the North End, came to this country five years ago. The first thing he and three of his friends did "was to look for a rugby club to play with."
"I had been over once before and I knew the Boston Rugby Club was a top team, but the Mystics, who are a spin-off from that club, were really going great," said O'Riordan.
In 1989, the Mystics defeated the Boston club to win the first of seven straight New England championships. The Mystics also won the Northeast Championship in 1989 and 1991, won the Eastern Division championship in 1991, which brought them to the United States National Championship game, where they lost to a California team.
The attraction to rugby over American football, O'Riordan explained, "is that everyone gets to handle the ball, play is continuous and equipment can be as little as a pair of shorts and a pair of shoes."
In Rudzinsky's case, he gained not a piece of equipment but a nickname he owes to rugby.
"I think it came from a corruption of my name. Someone thought the name was Buzinsky so people shortened it to `Buzz' and it stuck," he explained.
O'Riordan said many, like Rudzinsky, enjoy American football but recognize that it has become so highly specialized that many players do only one thing, like block or kick, and are not really fully involved in the whole game.
In rugby, "everyone gets to handle the ball and is responsible for moving it forward to score," he said. And the game is both local and international.
In August, the Mystics hosted a team from Wales, the Glamorgan Club, who they beat during that team's last tour here. This time the Welshmen beat the Mystics.
The Mystics also have hosted teams from England, Ireland, France, New Zealand, Scotland, Spain and Canada. In 1978, the Mystics became the first American team to play in the former Soviet Union. They also have toured Wales, France, Grand Cayman, Argentina, Brazil, Australia and the Bahamas.
The players mostly pay their own way, but recently increased sponsorship has cropped up. Tullamore Dew, a whiskey that wasn't sold outside of Ireland in the past, is now owned by Hiram Walker Inc., and sold here. It has become a major sponsor of the Mystics.
Another recent change, although temporary, is the Mystics' home field. They had been using Roosevelt Field, but a school is now being built there, so the club plays at the Riverview Business Park field in Billerica. But they still practice in Malden and still hold their social events at the city's East Side Athletic Club.
The social side of rugby is another attraction. Brent Goldstein, 38, of Lynnfield, has been playing for the Mystics since 1981. He was introduced to both the game and its social component while he was a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
"It's a club sport. You walk on the field and you're on the team," Goldstein explained. "All are welcome. Clubs have different levels, usually A, B or C, depending on ability, so you get to play at your own level."
He now plays with the "Old Boys" division, "or with anyone else who will have me. In most American sports, if you don't make the team, for whatever sport in high school or college, there's not much left.
"What's very attractive about this sport is that you can be as serious or as casual as you want in your training and playing. You play offense and defense all the time. It's very demanding," said Goldstein.
"And in the end, you can sit down and drink beer with your rugby friends on a Saturday night. That's for me," he added.
The basic rules of rugby
Rugby, according to some history and some legend, began at the Rugby School in England in 1823 when a student named William Webb Ellis, possibly bored with the game of soccer he was playing, picked up the ball and ran with it.
An engraved stone on the school grounds commemorates Ellis and the birth of rugby, noting his "fine disregard of the rules" of soccer.
The game is played with 15 players to a side, on a "pitch" or field that is 100 meters long by 69 meters wide. The game is played in two halves of 40 minutes each with time out for penalties added to total playing time.
Substitutes are allowed only if a player is injured too severely to continue the game.
"It's a very physical game, but there are fewer injuries than one might imagine. I've been playing for 20 years and I've only gotten a broken thumb," said Declan O'Riordan, captain of the Mystic River Rugby Club.
There are eight forwards, with names such as props and hookers, and six backs -- flyhalfs and scrumhalfs in some places, halfbacks and fullbacks in others.
The object of the games is to score trys, like touchdowns, where the ball, which looks like a fat American football, is run or kicked across the goal line and is touched down. A try is 5 points and a conversion kick -- through the uprights and over the crossbar -- after a try is worth 2 points. Three points are awarded for a successful penalty or drop-kick goal.
Under rugby laws, not rules, forward passes are not allowed but one can lateral, or pass back, to a player. The ball can be kicked forward but if it is dropped forward -- a knock on -- it is banned the same as a forward pass. In those cases, a scrum is used to re- start play, unless an opposing player quickly picks up the ball, like recovering a fumble, and keeps it in play.
A scrum involves most of the two teams locking arms with members of their own team, while the side awarded the ball in the scrum sets a pre-arranged signal for the ball to be rolled into a tunnel formed by the locked-together front rows. Coded plays are called out while the hookers on each team try to push the ball out behind them. While this is happening, both sides are trying to push themselves over the ball and away from the opposing team.
Blocking American style is not allowed. Players on the advancing team stay behind the ball. Straight-arm tackling also is banned. When a player is tackled, he must immediately release the ball and the tackler must immediately release the ballcarrier to keep play in motion.
"It's not very complicated, although the terms may seem a bit unusual to players new to the game," said O'Riordan.
There is rugby union and rugby league. Union is for amateur play while league, a slightly different game, is a professional group whose players are recruited from union teams.
As the British Empire expanded, so did rugby. The rugby world championship is scheduled to be played in Wales next year, and a US team is expected to be among about 20 at the international event.
Although rugby, like American football, has backs who are better at scoring than others and players who are better at running or passing the ball than tackling. Everyone is eligible to catch, kick, run or tackle. "It's a far more democratic game," said O'Riordan.
The Mystics, O'Riordan added, come from all walks of life. There are 90 active players and 150 social players; 97 percent of the Mystics are college graduates, with 22 percent self-employed. Nationally, he continued, there are 426 rugby clubs with an estimated 52,000 active players and 2.7 million social players, "second only to England." For more information on local rugby, call the Mystic River Rugby Club at 781-322-0898 or access its web page at www.mystic- rugby.com. The mailing address is P.O. Box 477, Malden, Ma. 02148.