Minus the pads, add the fun

by Dan Nguyen

Losing in rugby seems to be difficult for New Zealand. Take, for example, when their All Blacks lost to France in the semifinals of the 1999 World Cup. The resulting grief and anger from the biggest upset of the decade was so great that it had experts wondering if the aftermath would affect New Zealand’s political elections that year.

After the Iowa State men’s team lost to Iowa Central, 21-19, New Zealand was upset as well. Actually, it was just one New Zealander who was upset, even though the game had considerably less prestige than the World Cup semi-final. On the sidelines of the rock hard East Towers field the crowd couldn’t have consisted of more than extra players and, a few family members, and however many girlfriends the players had at that particular week.

Even if it wasn’t a world-class venue, the game itself was still intense enough to get emotional about. Iowa State had been holding on to a three point lead and had controlled the first half, but Central was able to drive within a few feet of the Iowa State goal line in the remaining few minutes. After a couple minutes of brawling and huffing over those few critical feet, Central scored a try—five points. Iowa State in the last minute was able to move up field to Central’s goal line but failed to convert before time ran out.

Inside the huddle of bedraggled and annoyed players a thick New Zealand accent could be heard over the heavy panting and cussing. The voice belonged to Sam Russek, an international student from New Zealand, and Russek used it to make a few comments--when he could find the space in his stream of cuss words—on the team’s lack of passing, running, and mental prowess.

The players, some of them quite larger than Russek, took the abuse willingly. Most of them had been participants in one of America’s most brutal traditions—football—but rugby is a different beast. It is a game Russek has been playing since he was seven, and that was stature enough for him to demand a better performance.

But for the most part, Iowa State’s ruggers don’t have to live up to New Zealand rugby standards. For two times a week, provided there is decent weather, players will trickle onto the Towers field as soon as their classes are done for the day or when they feel like waking from their afternoon naps.

After enough have gathered, they’ll pick up a ball and warm-up by playing what resembles a Sunday noon pickup game of touch football. There is a lot about rugby that resembles football. The field is roughly the same length and wider by one and a third times. The ball looks like a slightly oversize pigskin. The players, minus a little slack weight, could moonlight as collegiate football players.

"I say it’s high school football," explains Joe Kardel, vice president of the team and junior in marketing, describing how he might sell rugby. "Minus the pads, add the fun, and less than half the practices. If you don’t come to practices, I don’t care—you just won’t play. I’m not going to make you run, it’s up to you. That’s a big selling point."

Kardel was the type of hardcore football player in high school who would wake up at five in the morning and get some extra lifting in. As a college freshman, he walked on to the ISU football team but became disillusioned with the team.

"After going through the system for a semester, I thought, ‘OK, I want to have fun’," he remembers. Not willing to give up sports, Kardel kept his eyes open. He was playing basketball in the rec when he noticed the rugby team practicing. The then captain invited Kardel to the next practice.

"Honestly, I had no idea what it was, " Kardel remembers. "Just that they hit guys a lot and they didn’t have pads." Kardel was used to putting on pads for almost every day for the last six years of his organized football career and now he found it odd to be tackling opponents without them. And it was odd how the action wouldn’t stop after a tackle so the teams could draw up the next play in the dirt, but instead continued until there was a penalty or goal.

"It took me a whole semester to figure out how to play it, but once you throw the ball around and learn how to play, you’re instantly hooked. You get to love it real quick."

The team is divided into two factions, the forwards and backs. The latter half, disparagingly referred to as the "nancy boys" by the forwards, do most of the running. Since no forward passing or blocking is allowed, and the field—fortunately—is extra wide, the motion resembles a crazy zigzag that drifts up the field.

The forwards, or "gorillas", do most of the hitting and pushing to gain and keep control of the ball, which they feed to the backs. The forwards also take part in rugby’s only set formation: the scrum. In the scrum, the forwards bind together into a pack against the opposing forwards. The two packs clinch and struggle like two massive wrestlers while the ball is rolled neatly into the fray. The team that pushes the hardest will be able to kick the ball to their waiting backs, and ideally, twist a few knees and necks of the opposing team in the process. Since rugby headgear is scarce around Iowa, most players wrap back their ears with medical tape so they won’t be ripped off in the friction.

What makes rugby so tricky and chaotic in appearance, besides the never-ending motion (after a tackle, the forwards, who hopefully have been following the backs, will form a ruck—a type of informal scrum over the fallen player), is how each player is expected to be able to play both roles. Forwards will frequently take the ball to become an offensive force themselves, and backs will hit and tackle whenever possible.

The game isn’t much easier for a player to follow. He might exhaust himself in a ruck, only to find the ball has been lost and is now up field, in which case, he has to run and jump into that ruck, and then find the ball has instantaneously been transported downfield. More than one player has compared the game to being thrown into a dryer.

"Now, that I’ve been played rugby for so long, football does seem pretty cushy. You have pads, and you only go about ten seconds and then you rest for two minutes. Now when I watch it, it’s kind of boring." Kardel says.

From another perspective, football isn’t exactly an obvious sport either, at least to Sam Russek. He did entertain ideas of joining the football team when he came to ISU this year, but didn’t want to deal with the demands and restrictions of a varsity program. "I’ve watched it on TV. It looks like fun, if you’re a runningback," he says.

So it was—arguably—for the good luck of the Iowa State rugby team that Russek came along. The team graduated most of its upperclassmen last year, so Russek’s wealth of experience was needed. He started helping with conditioning but eventually became the head coach of sorts.

"I figured from the beginning I’d have to do something like this," Russek says. On his home club team, Russek says he was the youngest player.

He also claims that back home he was more inclined to "shut up and try to learn"—which may come as a surprise to anyone has watched Russek on more than one occasion trying to "coach" the referees in Iowa. Russek is louder during practices. The warm-up of touch rugby gives way to intensive drills and then hard conditioning all done under a blanket of yelling and cussing by Russek, and so even on the chilly days the players are drenched in sweat.

Russek also has more forcible and physical coaching methods. To make sure the forwards keep their stances low during a scrum, he stands over them and swings a menacing stick he broke off a nearby tree over their heads. "Make sure you stay low or I’ll cop you in the eye!" he shouts.

"He’s sometimes a little unrealistic," laughs Kardel, who shares some of the coaching responsibilities. "He’s right on with teaching; technique-wise, he’s more than you can ask for. It’s when he starts getting into other things that he gets interesting. It’s not his fault. It’s just when he plays and coaches the game, it’s ‘go, go, go’. But it’s college rugby and no one cares that much; they just want to have a good time. He’s right in that we should be doing it hard, but nobody likes it and no one wants to do it. It’s not high school football anymore."

Give Russek some credit; he’s no slouch on the field, and he doesn’t slouch in the coaching book either. He takes his cue from his father Alan—except perhaps his father’s quality of being "pretty quiet." Alan had coached Russek until he was twelve years old. As a teenager, though, Russek would listen and nod to what his coach had to say at halftime, then he would run over to his father and listen to what he had to say. He doesn’t, and obviously can’t, run to his father in the same way anymore. So now Russek emails him to ask for advice and for technique drills.

"I like sharing knowledge and seeing players get better," Russell says, echoing what Alan, a former teacher and now headmaster might say. "When they ask me a question and they don’t know the answer and I do; it makes me feel like I know something…All these guys who do science and aerospace engineering and they have to ask me questions about rugby—that cracks me up."

Even the most dedicated teachers are impatient, though, particularly teachers in a sport that calls for hotheaded temperament. "Do you want to know?" he responds with a chuckle when asked what goes through his head when the players don’t or can’t always do what he teaches. "Man, I’d just love to…are you going to print this? I get real mad sometimes. They’re all learning, so that’s good. But if I’m teaching someone and they do it completely wrong…I’ll just…Yeah, it just spins my mind."

Give the players some credit, too. Besides having problems with the lack of training equipment, the lack of funding, and the general chaos of the game—the atmosphere of club rugby may just be too fun for anyone to keep their minds focused on the game. It’s obvious on the morning of a Saturday game which players spent Friday night partying hard. "We’re not morning people," Dan Gazda said on the morning of the VEISHEA tournament. He admitted to having a heavy hangover. "But hey, it’s rugby."

Gazda is a six-year rugger. He started as a freshman at Hiram College as a soccer player looking for off-season activity ("I used to think I was a soccer player that played rugby. And now I think I’m more of a rugby player that plays soccer," he says.). He is the only graduate student on the Iowa State team. "I spend ten to twelve hours a day sitting at a lab, sitting at a desk, staring at walls and books…generally getting frustrated when things don’t work out," he says. "So I get a chance to run around, be outside, and take out some frustrations."

The rugby field is an appropriate arena to take out frustrations—players with their aluminum cleats have been known to jump on opponents who are stingy with the ball. Elbows sometimes strike with more frequency than the Law of Random Accidents can account for. But even at the most competitive levels, rugby is surprisingly friendly considering that during the two forty-minute periods, the players are trying their best to rub their opponents into the ground. And when they do succeed in this, they (usually) help each other up with a smile.

The kill mentality in high school football, Kardel remembers, was strong enough that players from rival teams would walk on opposite sides of the mall. That hostility, he found, doesn’t exist in rugby. Kardel remembers a particularly hard hit he delivered: "I hit him and heard a ‘pop’, and he just kind of laid there and said ‘Oops, that’s a broken rib," Kardel remembers. "But he was the first one to buy me a beer at the party afterwards."

"There’s a very strong social aspect to the game. It’s not like an organized sport where there’s a coach yelling at you," Gazda says, who played on a top 20 Division III soccer team. "You’re doing it because it’s fun and you enjoy the people you are around. I don’t think there’s anyone [on the team] who doesn’t want to be around these guys." Gazda has some vivid memories of playing rugby, like the very first time he "got cleaned"—that is, when his back was placed violently into the air and then onto the field.

But most of his favorite stories are centered off the field and after the game, like watching a teammate climb the neon tree outside a bar to moon the crowd. And scrum-half bowling, which involves watering down the yard, setting up the empty kegs, and sliding the smaller players through the mud into the makeshift pins. And the time when he walked through a bar in a woman’s G-string for three dollars.

Insanity. It is generally considered a qualification to play rugby. The players themselves usually disagree about this. Take for example, Russek, who hails from one of the most fanatical rugby nations. "He doesn’t leave anything on the sideline; he takes it all out there," Kardel says. "The other [New Zealanders] we’ve had, they’re not smarter, but they think before they do. Sammy just hits and asks questions later…he’s missing a few things."

I don’t think I’m nuts," responds Sammy half hurt, when informed of this judgment. "I think I’m perfectly sane. I just play hard and they think that’s nutty. I’m normal—flat out normal. Hannibal Lecter, Adam Sandler. That’s who I think of as nuts. I’m not like that."

The players, sane or insane, generally shrug off the fear of or concern for the serious injury that rugby entails. . "For me, it [an essential limb/joint] has to either be not moving or something like that before I’ll come out," Kardel says. "I have too much fun out there to get out of play." Actually, the lack of pads isn’t as intimidating as it sounds—tackles don’t involve the same kind of vicious impact as in football. Instead, a legal tackle in rugby requires the tackler to wrap his arms around the player—on the area between the shoulders and knees—before taking him to the ground. But there still is the frequent contact with hard elbows and hard ground. Enough hard contact to put out of action three to four players at any given week with sprained ankles and knees, separated shoulders, and broken ribs and noses.

Sunday mornings are extremely hard for players to rise from, even without a crippling injury or hangover in the way. Like every other college student, they have to deal with the arrival of yet another week of studies and work, but also with the complete body-ache that comes from the fatigue and from bruises and cleat cuts newly discovered after a morning shower.

A plea of insanity might be made for the rugby players who go through this without expecting an ounce of recognition for it. But even they will recognize that all good things might come to an end. "I still got a few more years in me. My mom doesn’t want to hear that," says Gazda, who is currently nursing a broken nose.

"What’s going to make me stop? Hopefully, I’ll just wake up one day and say, ‘You know what? I can still walk and I don’t think I want to play rugby anymore.’ But it’s addictive. It doesn’t seem right to give it up."