Inside the scrum

Rugby's roots run deep, even in Alaska

By Andromeda Romano-Lax
Anchorage Daily News

(August 26, 2001)

Ruck. Maul. The Dark Arts of the Scrum.

No, Harry Potter's fictional game of Quidditch hasn't come to Anchorage. These athletic terms belong to a very real sport that's been played in Alaska for 28 years.

In last week's Oosik Invitational, the state rugby championship, the Bird Creek Barbarians beat the Anchorage Ravens 20-10. Alaska's other three teams are the Spenard Green Dragons, the Anchorage Armed Forces Thunderbirds and the Fairbanks Sundawgs.

The invitational capped a short, intense season in a sport that has a long -- and curious -- history.

Like Quidditch, rugby hails from Great Britain. Both sports inspire post-game, boarding school-style camaraderie. Rugby even makes use of a wand -- a "wanker wand" in local Barbarian team lingo. This is no magical object, however. It's a toilet bowl plunger filled with beer, presented after each game or practice to the player who made the biggest gaffe.

More essential than these coincidences is the fact that both sports require a fearless devotion to physical contact. There are no "beaters" or "bludgers" in rugby, but there are many opportunities for men to push, pull, collide and give each other wedgies.

In the infamous scrum, for example, forwards of each team pack together with heads down and arms locked, attempting to drive their opponents away from the ball, which rests on the ground. Using his foot, a team "hooker" simultaneously attempts to work the ball backward and into play.

Even more puzzling to the onlooker is the line-out, where players on each side hoist a teammate by his shorts to put him in better position to catch the oblong ball when it is tossed in from the sidelines.

Hard to picture?

"It's a mass of humanity out there, but it's very efficient, and very intelligent," said Cam Vivian, 43, of the Barbarians.

Quidditch was first fully described in 1398, or so author Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling says. Rugby's roots are only slightly less mythical.

It originated, its boosters claim, in 1823, in the town of Rugby, England, when a young cheat named William Webb Ellis picked up and carried the ball during a game of soccer. Within three years, this rib-crushing, rule-flaunting sport had become so popular that 120 boys had broken their legs on account of it.

In Alaska, pulled muscles and concussions are commonplace. Three years ago, an Eagle River enthusiast broke his neck during a game. The spinal cord damage left him an incomplete quadriplegic.

But it's really not that violent, some players claim.

"Typically in football you get big injuries. In rugby, you get a lot of little injuries," Vivian said.

In rugby, unlike football, players don't wear full-sized pads or hard helmets. (Optional soft helmets and thin pads are worn by a handful of players.) In theory, this means that players don't feel quite as indestructible and don't collide as ruthlessly, Vivian said. Plus, there is no tackling above the shoulders or below the knees.

Unlike football, there are no forward passes, blocking, huddles, set plays or quarterbacks hogging the ball.

But most other comparisons are meaningless. Rugby is not football's mischievous twin, or -- all fun aside -- Quidditch's either.

"I've played a lot of other sports -- high school football, soccer and wrestling -- but nothing compares to rugby," said Tony Lopez, a veteran of six seasons. "You're on the field, beating the heck out of each other. But after the game you leave the aggression on the field. You have a drink up, have a burger, sing songs, socialize."

In fact, the bonding continues even after the season has ended, Lopez said. The weekly games and practices are over, but Thursday night "drinking practice" -- a dark art second only to the scrum -- will continue at the Cheechako Bar all year long.