March 1998

I was channel surfing one Sunday night and stumbled upon a televised rugby match between the Irish and the Welsh - it turned out to be a part of something called "The Five Nations," which certainly sounded impressive. Not a sports fan at all, I was surprised to find myself watching the match for some time. The following week, entirely against type, I tuned in for the next match, and the next, and the next.

During a slow day at work I typed in "rugby" in Yahoo and came up with a ton of rugby-related web sites. After some sifting and sorting I found that the local clubs around these parts are three: "NOVA," an outfit in D.C. calling itself "West Potomac" and "Western Suburbs," which unlike the other two has a nice web site. Even better, it has a schedule - I can go and check out a game. Being a suburban myself, this bunch sounds like a possibility, should I ever be insane enough to want to play at age 42.

Met a Scottish fellow in line at Costco; he was wearing a Five Nations tee shirt, which became a conversation starter. He told me rugby is a part of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in D.C., and that I could see a really great match or two there for free. My interest piqued, I drove out one Sunday to watch a match between a seriously motivated Air Force Select Side (they call teams "sides" - how British), who won, and the aforementioned NOVA, who lost. The day ended on a down note with a $50 parking ticket. Watching that match wasn't free after all.

28 April

Drove out to a park on Braddock to watch a match between the Western Suburbs guys and an outfit calling themselves "Rocky Gorge." Where is this rocky gorge? I don't know. What was the score? I never did find out. Looked like the WS guys got narrowly beaten; a pretty fair match of skill between the teams. I didn't talk to anyone, me being a cautious type and this being strictly a visit for observation.

One fellow, taking a hard bang in the knee, had to be helped off the field of honor, and later limped to his car. Applaud him off the field? Well I should say so.

May and June

My interest in playing, not just watching, rugby is growing, which is distressing. I mean, is this really me? I spent most of my boyhood with my nose in books, not the least bit interested in sports of any kind. Basketball, for me, is about as interesting as watching water slosh from side to side in a bathtub. Soccer is beneath contempt. I know why I'm attracted to rugby: it's British. I'm a born Anglophile. But I'm 42. I should be taking up what my wife calls a "lifetime sport," like golf (which also never interested me). Must be male menopause or mid-life crisis causing this.

In late May I met some of the WS guys at the practice "pitch" (another one of those British terms) one evening, and talked to a few of them about actually playing. All were of the opinion that over forty was not too old to start. I reckon they have a point, and I have a sneaking feeling that when I'm 70 I'll want to have at least tried it. I'm old enough now to realize that regrets about the past are a kind of living hell. (For instance, why did I ever sell my comic book collection?)

And why shouldn't I try it? After all, other guys are having second families in their 50s, although watching older guys (than I) carry around infants and toddlers causes me to stare slack-jawed, with great gobs of drool hanging out of my mouth. With three kids my wife and I changed diapers continuously for nine years - what are these guys thinking? Rugby can be given up after a season or two - parenthood is a real commitment. Okay, here's the plan: Let my sore ankle heal up, do the big week-long scouting hike with my son and help get him closer to Eagle this summer. Try to talk myself out of rugby for the next couple of months. After all, right now they're playing "Sevens" (all that running - yikes!) during the summer and they don't start 15's training until August. Maybe this interest will pass. If it doesn't I'll make serious contact. Yeah, that's it - put off making a decision. I'm good at that.

July

Nope, the interest is still there. If anything it's worse, having watched the New Zealand All-Blacks - a stylish bunch, if ever there was one - make mincemeat out of the touring English. I attended an evening meeting of the WS "Old Boys." The term isn't a real slight - if you're over 35 you're in this group. Friendly group, very reassuring about playing this rough-and-tumble game at a (ahem!) mature age. Unlike the young boys, they play fewer games of shorter duration (three 20 minute periods as opposed to two 40 minute halves). What's more, they don't go to practice. I won't be able to get away with this, of course - I'll have to learn to play and gain fitness. The Old Boys emphasis seems to be on recreation and camaraderie rather than competition, which is fine by me. I wouldn't call it Rugby Lite, though. Level of play and intensity seems to be very much up to the individual, which is as it should be.

The Old Boys also discussed traveling abroad on rugby-related excursions. One trip is to Wales to see the 1999 Rugby World Cup ($$), another to Australia ($$$$). Wales and the Southern Hemisphere will have to wait - I have a house in need of repairs and improvements. (One funny detail from the Australian pamphlet: players age 68 and over are expected to wear red shorts which indicate "not to be tackled." Well, duh.)

Afterwards I asked questions and got satisfactory answers about the level of commitment, skill and athleticism required for hobbyist rugby. Even better, I also got the nod to play lock forward. By body type it's appropriate: I'm 6'4" and 265 pounds - locks tend to be big and tall. Locks are also part of the front "tight five" in the scrum, which is nothing more than eight guys, connected together by ways the standoffish and squeamish need not consider, imitating charging water buffalos and grunting impressively when they slam into the opposing team's scrum. (I visited a nearby rugby store and saw a poster I'll reward myself with when I'm not such a wanna-be: It has a photo of a heaping pile of guys with the slogan "Sure 'scrum' is a funny name but 'assault and battery' was already taken.") Something uncivilized deep, deep down inside of me makes me want to do this. Better off not to analyze it.

Maybe I can do this after all. Okay, I'll give it a shot. Hey, I'm up for it.

Tuesday Evening Practice, 4 August.

Well, I certainly got a comeuppance for my arrogance on the practice pitch! We ran around. We ran some more. We sprinted. We sprinted and touched the ground. We passed the ball around in that stylish underhanded lofting throw so characteristic of the game and ran while we did it. Then we ran some more. I haven't done any running in the last five years and the lack of it was apparent to me. Not only was I thoroughly knackered, but that big dinner I ate kept trying to make its way up my throat to exit. Sore? I should say. A whole new world of sore. Great expanding vistas of sore. My upper legs felt like lead after about an hour of this fare. Not a high grade of lead, either, but a wobbly sort of organic lead. We did some tackling practice, too: I spent a few clumsy minutes learning how to take down a patient human oak tree named Pete. (As it turns out there are multiple numbers of Petes in this rugby club. If anyone ever tires of the name "Western Suburbs," it can go by "The Petes" instead. Or even, "The Peters.")

Between bouts of gasping for air I also spent some time talking to other players. One Mansonesque-looking fellow (deceptively scary-looking for rugby psych-out purposes - he's actually quite friendly and decent) named Kelly gave me some tips about passing the ball. Always look at the guy you plan to pass to - it helps your aim in much the same way handgun shooters are taught to point at their target. Actually, passing was the least of my many embarrassments as I seemed to catch on after a fashion. What threw me were the intricate dance steps that made up some of the drills. Uncoordinated and klutzy as I am, I was rehearsing them in my head that night so as to not be so inadvertently comical the next time.

It all looks so easy on TV. On the practice pitch I kept unaccountably encountering golf balls. When I was winded enough they'd call out to me, "Wouldn't you really prefer to walk around at a reasonable pace and occasionally whack me around with a club?"

Oh well, the idea is to get incrementally better and smarter each time I come out, not to make the same mistakes, and, of course to continue to come out. One rugby revelation concerned appearances: A lot of these guys just don't look, well, athletic. Sure there are many lean and fit jock types leaving those little burn marks on the pitch that the Roadrunner used to leave on desolate Arizona highways, but there are also some rather hefty guys - and they can still run, too. At least better than I can, circles around me... at least for now...

Thursday Evening Practice, 6 August

Knowing what was in wait for me I dreaded Part II of the week. Showing up at the pitch I could feel that erp in the stomach I used to get in the bad old days of junior high school, just before P.E. After a run around the track while doing various confusing manipulative things with a rugby ball (another personal showcase for embarrassment) we did some rucking and mauling practice. Rucking and mauling is rather more fun than it sounds, despite the close association of R&M to S&M. In fact, I found it fun in ways that a thousand uniformed Confederates charging towards me on the reenactment field hasn't been in years. Oh, sure, I didn't know what I was doing a lot of the time on the pitch, but I began to get a glimmer of what rugby could be for me.

We did an opponentless scrum, and I got an idea of what a lock forward is supposed to do. Here it is: Reach up between a sweaty prop's legs with the left arm and grab - careful aim, there! - the waist of his shorts, the arm curling around his leg. The right arm goes around your fellow lock's sweaty back and grabs his shorts. The head goes between the hips of a sweaty prop and the hooker. A sweaty flanker is binding to the prop, and the sweaty number eight is binding on your other free leg. My job as a lock is to shove the prop forward and maintain stability. In a match, on cue this great heaping 1,600+ pound pile of humanity gets up, rams forward and grunts loudly. Wowee, if this game wasn't played by generations of virile Brits (and if it wasn't for my happy marriage and fatherhood of three darling children), I would seriously wonder about my sexual orientation, if not my sanity. But right now it's what I really want to do for reasons unknown.

I drove the human oak tree home and learned he likes opera. Who woulda thought?

Tuesday Evening Practice, 11 August

It was warmer and more humid this week than last, but that didn't stop us from running around anyway. Tuesdays are reserved for mostly cardiovascular activities, which I find difficult. The coach has a fiendishly mixed repertoire of running exercises: tonight we ran a path strewn with the bodies of other players lying on the ground in a sort of relay. I enjoyed the lying down part but didn't get to stay down long since some of the club speed demons were passing us slower guys, cheating us of a longer rest! The other killer thing (to me) we did was to run backwards. Talk about sore calf muscles...

It's depressing to be one of the slowest guys in the club, but I plan to keep showing up. With practice will come better fitness. (Not to mention weight loss - I lost four pounds between yesterday morning and this morning).

Thursday Evening Practice, 13 August

This one was just a lot of fun; we put the scrum sled together and the forwards banged away at that for awhile. I think I may have discovered my true calling, here. The scrum seems to be a lot of fun - well, more fun that running around the pitch, anyway. At one point we backed the sled to a tree and took turns pushing into it - I was able to raise it well off the ground. We also did some line-out practice, the calls for which are puzzling and something like cryptology.

Even if I never play a rugby match I ought to continue with this practice. I've lost six pounds in a week and now weigh less than I have since sometime last year!

Tuesday Evening Practice, 18 August

Sort of a wash-out for me in that my ankle hurt too badly from last week's running to do much running on this night. Still, I did get a workout, limping along the track. It was pretty hot and humid. We also did a curious little drill: one guy holds a rugby ball and three others try to wrest it from him. It wasn't easy; the advantage is with the guy holding the ball. And talk about a workout!

After practice I went home and did the front brakes on the van, since I won't be around next week. All in all, a sweaty nights' work.

Thursday Evening Practice, 20 August

The best rugby practice night of all, despite the continued pain in my right ankle. Lots of people showed up, including a guy even newer and less experienced than me!

We did some major scrum and lineout practice tonight; some of the lineouts were contested, we had enough forwards present to do this. Sometimes the lines would fall apart, guys falling all over the place willy-nilly, what a mess. I also took part in a collapsed scrum - that was interesting. When everyone is bound together and one person collapses, we all collapse. It was a lot of concentrated work - on a couple of occasions I'd get out of the scrum with my head reeling. Still, it's fun in a way I'm not exactly sure makes sense.

We had a team meeting after practice at an Italian restaurant called "Mama's"; we all met in the basement - I further distinguished myself by spilling my Pepsi all over my shorts and legs. An athletic fellow named Matt Clark got made the a-side captain by the selectors - no surprise there. His leadership qualities are apparent.

I'm beginning to feel a part of this organization, and it's fulfilling. It's very much like my best days in reenacting with some difficult physical conditioning (and the disorientation of having to figure things out and listen to two or three simultaneous instructing voices) thrown in. Being on a real team is a new experience for me; it wasn't even like that when I was in boot camp or anywhere else in the Marines.

And being a forward - and a "tight five"player yet - is cool.

What will my first match be like? It's hard for me to imagine, but more and more I'm thinking the fun will outweigh the anxiety.

Thursday Evening Practice, 27 August

I might have known: I spend money to vacation in California and I find myself thinking of playing rugby in Virginia, and, what's more, reading a book about reenacting in Virginia! Anyway, I got off the plane, rested a few hours and attended practice which, as Thursdays normally are, was a lot of fun. (We did some contested scrums, which was a new experience. Turnout is really getting good, and we can do all sorts of things with all those players.) I was thinking it might be nice to take the day off, having come back and all, but I'm glad I attended. Only problem is that my ankles still hurt, even after a week of no running. (I had to bow out of a practice game after a bit of running, they hurt so much.)

I asked Kelly about this, and he thinks it's the fault of my cleated shoes on that hard ground. His recommendation was to wear normal sneakers for running, and put some inserts into them as well. I will try this.

Tuesday Evening Practice, 1 September

Well, hooray! Either the sneakers and the inserts did the trick, or my ankles are simply healing. I was able to stay running around until we ended at sunset, with only a little ankle discomfort. This was the first Tuesday I was able to stay until the end of practice, and the first time in weeks I could sprint without thinking my ankles were going to collapse under me.

We had the usual Tuesday running - I seem to be building up endurance - plus a brutal practice involving the forwards doing rucks and mauls. It's kind of hard to describe, but it's chaotic and a lot like gang wrestling. Did some tackling and wound up on the bottom of piles of guys - oof! I made the mistake of reaching in a ruck and grabbing the ball - a no-no. The game doesn't allow for this kind of opportunism; apparently what has to happen is that the trampling herd has to move over the ball for the scrum-half to recover. We also did passing practice - apparently this was a problem in last weekend's game. Afterwards we had a full practice game, tackling and all, that makes it obvious I still have a lot to learn.

Thursday Evening Practice, 3 September

It's starting to come together for me at last... conditioning, play, even the social aspect. I'm getting to know them; they're getting to know me. My ankles didn't give me problems, and after a run and some passing exercises we went into what was essentially a game, with one side in similar jerseys, contested scrums, penalties, line-outs, trys, rucks, mauls, tackling and running, lots of running. And I hung in there for the entire time, with younger guys. Some of them are not even half my age. A bunch of current and graduate kids from the West End high school club joined us this evening.

How well did I play? Passably, I guess. I pushed in the scrums and hoisted in the line-outs. Did a couple of good tackles. The rucks and mauls still seem like chaos to me and I'm uncertain of what to do sometimes - but this will come with experience.

All in all, another excellent experience! (Especially given that I've lost twelve pounds in the three weeks since I've started keeping track.)

Tuesday Evening Practice, 8 September

Usually our day for cardiovascular stuff (running and sprints), we did line-outs for almost the entire practice. This means I spent more than an hour doing military presses by grasping onto a guy's shorts and hoisting him into the air. Upon the jumper's arrival back on the ground the whole formation turned into mauls, with guys shoving and pushing. I'm glad the weather was cool! Afterwards we did our running and sprints - and I hung in there again. I'm finally building up an ability to run.

Doing practice with teenagers is kind of funny. At one point some of us older guys were grousing about injuries and running, and a voice from behind us said, "...and today was the first day of school!"

Thursday Evening Practice, 10 September

Today I spent most of practice doing line-outs again, but this time with a new fellow named Jeff who has excellent reflexes and who only weighs 185 pounds. The result was that we were getting him higher and faster than before, and stealing the ball away from more experienced players. It was fun!

More running at the end - I sprinted the final 50 yards or so. It's a relief that my ankles aren't giving me problems anymore.

MY DEBUT: OLD BOYS GAME, NOON, SUNDAY 13 SEPTEMBER

We beat the Poltroons ("Hostile, Senile, Fragile") 29-19. It was hot, and the heat took a lot out of me - in fact, it pretty much negated the benefits I'd gained by attending training for the last month or so. I did okay, I guess - I played for about 50 minutes of a 60 minute game - but I'd have liked to contribute more. Maybe next time, if the weather is a little cooler. (I've gone from wanting to merely being a participant to being a real contributor.) Well, our team scored tries. If I'd have scored one I'd have considered, and rightly so, that it was a mutual effort and not done alone, so I'm happy we won.

I took a real hit in the first twenty minutes; me and another guy collided and I found myself on the ground literally seeing stars and the sky. After a moment or two on the ground I got up and continued, but it wasn't easy. I think the other guy was on the ground as well, but I don't exactly recall. Anyway I have a black scrape on my forehead and a lump on the other side for my efforts.

We had a decided advantage in the scrums, our forwards being bigger and stronger than their forwards. Perhaps the term "Old Boys" is misleading: The guy I was playing lock with was about my height, probably in his late Thirties, and really built; I think he has one of those jobs where he's paid to be muscular. Anyway, he was a walking reinforcement of my conviction that no matter how fast, strong, tall, big, smart or aggressive you are, there will always be somebody more so. He also followed the ball during one play and was in the right place at the right time to carry it over the try line, bully on him. (Following the ball is something I have to work on. It's difficult, since a ball can travel faster than a forward.)

One Poltroon - a literal "Old Boy" - was a real inspiration: a gray-bearded 65 year old who was cracking Viagra jokes. I doubt he was in the game for the entire period, but hey, he was out there playing rugby with guys twenty years and more younger than himself. I thought my reenacting pal Harry Dierken, in his Seventies, was an aging over-achiever. This guy does him one better. Anyway, that's the way I want to be, barring strokes, Alzheimer's or general debility. The most important lesson my father ever taught me was done unknowingly: you have to stay active.

So did I enjoy myself? Yes, I did.

Tuesday Evening Practice, 15 September

Nothing remarkable about this practice, save it was very warm and humid. All of us were sopping wringing wet by the time we had finished our various passing exercises, scrums, line-outs, sprints and calisthenics. My poor wife, who does my laundry, declared my tee-shirt "gross."

The forehead scrape I had received in the Sunday game got opened up in a maul and started bleeding, which, I suppose, represents another rugby first for me.

Thursday Evening Practice, 17 September

My favorite kind of practice - we played a practice game. Nothing else prepares me as well for a real game, I think. This time I didn't quite run out of steam the way I did on Sunday - but then, it was cooler with no sun. Too bad the real games are played in the mid-afternoon and not the early evening! Also, I didn't feel all beaten up afterwards, either, even though I took part in as many rucks and mauls as I could run to and follow. Maybe sprinting around does me in more than the rucking and mauling contact does - I don't know.

I kinda sorta made a commitment to take part in the b-side home game this Saturday, with the younger guys. Now the fat's in the fire. Can I do 40 (or 80) minutes during midday? Perhaps this Saturday I'll find out. I'll have to borrow a jersey or use a club one (if there is such a thing), I guess, until my own comes in.(Long sleeved, with four inch black and white horizontal stripes with a black WS monogram. Mine will have a "4" on the back, to signify my status as a lock forward. Please excuse the detail, but we reenactors are into this uniforming thing.)

MY B SIDE DEBUT: AGAINST RALEIGH, NC, "VIPERS" SATURDAY 19 SEPTEMBER

Our a-side had narrowly lost to Raleigh's team by two points, and since Raleigh had really only brought enough players for one side, their "a" side, reinforced by three or four Suburbs players, played us. They whipped us handily; the score was something like 24-10; so much for assuming those guys would be too tired to beat us!

I turned a corner with this game: it was a full game (well, we played two thirty minutes halves), played with the guys I practice with, and I played it all. Sure, I was pretty tired at the end, but so was everyone else except the very best players. Comparing notes with some of the others, in fact, nobody felt like less of a man for having played sixty minutes rather than eighty!

I did a couple of good tackles, hoisted our tall, light French player Cyrille high in the air in the line-outs, and certainly contributed to the mauls and scrums. I even got the ball at one point and ran up the center, only to be slowed down by two, then stopped by four, Raleigh players. A mistake, since I was facing in the wrong direction to hand off the ball to one of my teammates (they didn't follow me up the center to maul me forward). So now I know for sure: don't try to take on an opposing team single-handedly. Talk about exhausted...

As in my first match I had a penalty against me, but this time I'm not entirely sure why. It was an offsides penalty because I touched a ball before an opposition player did, but I'm going to have to ask somebody at practice exactly what I did wrong so I don't do it again.

Anyway, this match was more fun than my first one. I guess it's because it's with the mainstream of the club, the weather was cooler and the pitch was nicer (there was actually grass, much better to fall on than dirt). I'm going to write out a check for an additional $30 and become a b-side player. For this match I borrowed a regular Suburbs jersey from Art Steffen (one of the chief Old Boys) - I think mine comes this week.

Tuesday Evening Practice, 22 September

We did our two laps, we did our passing exercise, and we played some practice rugby, "live" (that means tackling and mouthguards). I needed to leave early because Mom and Dad Bilyeu flew in from Utah, so I did. An unremarkable practice, which is in itself remarkable. This stuff is becoming familiar.

Thursday Evening Practice, 24 September

Two laps, the passing exercise, live practice rugby - which is becoming familiar and nowhere as fearsome as it was at the beginning of the season - and an extended session with the scrum sled (which I also find fun in my strange way), then running. A long, tiring practice, but one of those experiences where one feels that something has been accomplished.

OLD BOYS GAME AGAINST THE IRISH WILD GEESE, SUNDAY 27 SEPTEMBER

We beat them 35 to 7, and it was remarkably easy to do with the talent we had amongst the forwards and backs. It was hot: 92 degrees in the shade, but I hung in there a lot better than I did for my first game. (Bringing ice water helped a lot, too!) Obviously all this training I've been doing is paying off; I have also lost 18 pounds to date, and am now in size 38 pants. What's more, my legs have gotten more muscular - some pants are tight just above the knees where they weren't before.

At 247 pounds I was one of the lightest tall forwards - which says a lot about the size of Suburbs' Old Boys' forwards - so I got to jump in the line-outs, and did well. Great teamwork: the two strong props got me skywards and I always got our ball - and often spoiled the opposing teams' ball when they had the throw-in - and got it smoothly to one of our guys who shot it to the backs. Like machine work. Once I came down with the ball and we drove 20 yards or so to the touch line - it was inspirational. Anyway, we were doing so well with the line-outs that the Geese were going to three man line-outs on their throw to counter.

We also generally pushed them around at will and took their ball in the scrums, too. In all, a very satisfying game and played on my part with much more assurance than the previous two.

Tuesday Evening Practice, 29 September

A great evening - I got compliments for my line out work at the game (Kelly said that at one point it looked like I had been playing for fifteen years!) and my black and white striped team jersey arrived. A team jersey - the first in my entire life. I feel like a Little Leaguer must.

We did the most running we had ever done, but somehow I stuck in there. I also nearly got gouged in the eye a bit, and spent some time out on the sidelines with the eye closed. It isn't bad, though, just a scratch beneath the eye.

Thursday Evening Practice, 1 October

Without a doubt the worst practice so far. We did a continuous type of passing exercise with tackling, which was tiring since there were no line-outs to regain breath and composure. After a lot of running and some good and some missed tackles I landed kind of hard on my ankle and knee, and so got off the field for a moment where I talked myself into not resuming practice. I wasn't too hurt to continue, but for some reason I didn't want to, so I wimped out. We also did some scrum sled stuff, which I normally find fun, but after one try (and a slip because I wasn't wearing my studded shoes) I gave that up, too. I went home early to pick up Dad Bilyeu from the metro station, and felt guilty, old, ashamed and discouraged the rest of the evening.

If I ever feel inclined to put forth less than a 100% effort at future practices or games I'll have to remember this experience, and more specifically how I felt about myself when I got home! Mentally I took a giant step backwards. Can't have that; October is my last rugby month and I intend to get four or five games (I may or may not do the last Old Boys game) and all the practice sessions under my belt. Obviously I have to work on mental toughness.

Tuesday Evening Practice, 6 October

I redeemed myself this evening by hanging in there for everything. Sure, I was exhausted at the end because we rarely rested for 1 hours, but I didn't leave the field. The last scrum I did on the sled was especially wearing - I could barely pull myself out of the formation, I was so worn from pushing. (And then we did sprints and push-ups, etc.) But not feeling like a loser was all worth it, of course.

I learned two things at this practice: 1) I really like babies. One guy's wife showed up to practice with him and brought their six week old boy, whom I enjoyed holding and cooing to. Right in front of everyone. There goes my he-man impression. Oh, well - I'll always be a better father than a rugby player, I guess. 2) I originally figured forwards do the hard physical contact work in lieu of doing all the running the backs do, but it is now apparent to me that we do as much - if not more - running than the backs. After all, we're expected to follow the ball getting thrown and kicked all over the field.

Thursday Evening Practice, 8 October

Light rain and mud tonight - English rugby conditions! We did some situational rucking and mauling, got a little muddy, and then retired to the asphalt to do some "brain work," as it was called. The First XV - known usually as the a-side - worked out some plays for this weekend's match with the Norfolk Blues, and we b-siders assisted.

I've now lost twenty pounds since I started rugby and, while I have bruised arms and sore ankles, legs, fingers, sides and a sore upper back to show for it, I'm better off physically than I was. I'm certainly better off physically than my father was at my age, and, in fact, better off physically than a great many people my age. I had a conversation along these lines with Kelly, who has been something of a personal trainer and a real encouragement for me. He's 41, and says that when he looks at the other people his age he realizes that his activity in rugby sets him apart in some way. He's right; courting injury several times a week says something about a person. What, I'm not sure: "I'm foolish," "I'm tough," "I'm brave" - I don't know.

B-SIDE MATCH AGAINST THE NORFOLK BLUES, SATURDAY 10 OCTOBER

This involved a road trip to Norfolk, a place in Virginia I haven't been to yet. It took us about three hours to get there, leaving early in the morning. I had three guys in the van as passengers. Anyway, the a-side got beaten, and so did we. We got beaten worse, however (I don't know the score), and didn't even make a try. Ouch! We didn't travel with a full b-side, and some of our players were Norfolk guys and some were WS a-side players. I'm pretty sure our line-outs stunk; Norfolk had this towering 6'7" guy who appeared to be grabbing the ball whenever he wanted to, plus they also had support from extra players, spectators and other hangers-on. But the ref said our forwards were playing a pretty good game, so... well... we lost. Let's leave it at that. Western Suburbs is now 0 and 4. (We're taking inspiration from the Redskins.)

I had a great time, though, and built more confidence. I'm also no longer continually out of breath during the games, which is nice. I was injured in this match, however. I made a tackle and wound up on my back, and Kevin (the club president) got shoved and landed on my chest, hard. It caused some pain, but apparently nothing was broken there and I was able to finish the game. A day later, however, I started getting some persistent pains in my back that lead me to believe that I may have bruised or cracked a rib. Drat! I'll go to practice on Tuesday, take it easy and ask around what a cracked rib feels like - it hurts badly when I cough, for instance, and there's no outward sign of bruised muscles - and hope I can play this next game on Saturday.

After the matches we met up with the Norfolk Blues at a bar downtown, but we didn't stay long, it being a three hour trip back. I followed some guys who got lost, which turned it into a four hour trip back. Got to drive by Hampton Roads, the site of the Monitor vs. Merrimack naval battle, which was a new Virginia history site for me.

Tuesday Evening Practice, 13 October

Took it easy tonight and just ran some laps - no scrumming, no contact play. Like Sean the Prop, a "delicate flower." Not really a wimp-out like the other night, this was a reasonable rest and refit after injuries honorably sustained in play. It was hard not to take part in the scrumdowns, though. Anyway, I ran a lot and didn't hurt very much; 800 mg of ibuprofen helped there. I was a lot more sore just sitting in my office! Talked some with Kelly, my personal mental trainer. Talking with the guys who have had cracked ribs, I'm pretty sure I must have just bruised mine, but my symptoms are the same, only lesser. (Hurts to breathe and cough, etc.) Hope I feel better on Thursday and Saturday...

Thursday Evening Practice, 15 October

A funny sort of practice. I was still sore from Saturday's game but came out anyway, and, unlike Tuesday, did some contact stuff. We brought out the electric lights and generators to combat the early darkness, and did some skills work (fancy line-out and scrum plays) with the a-side. I hope they use this stuff and win a match with it! Tonight for a change I let one of the younger guys provide line-out opposition for Fef - what fun. (Fef is an a-side prop/hooker who is built like a brick privy. The man doesn't distinguish between practice and real play; he is positively brutal.) Besides mere force and aggression, Fef also brings other, unique talents into play: he once pinched my upper arms so badly I had huge purple marks on me for almost a week.

One learns certain realities playing rugby. Other than the "bigger and badder" rule I identified in my write-up of my first game, there is also this: Even though I'm 6'4" and 247 pounds a smaller, but more experienced, player weighing much less can drop me on my behind in a second - and then his teammates will trample me with studded boots. There's a bumper sticker I now thoroughly understand: "There is no winning or losing in rugby - there is only survival." It's all in teamwork and technique.

We had a fun little exercise with contested scrums, and we motleys (a term for the more or less disorganized b-siders in practice) more than held our own. At one point they pushed, I dug in and refused to move and the result was that the 250 lb. prop in front of me got lifted right off the ground! Weird mechanics of force and pressure go on in scrums... but I do enjoy this stuff. I wish we emphasized the scrum more; I get a kick out of the sled work and contested matches."Forces equivalent to 1.5 tons are exerted on a player's cervical spine during a scrum." - The American Journal of Sports Medicine

I got beaten up on Saturday more than I thought. The other day I got these reddish bruises up my left arm; I don't remember what caused it during the match, and I have no idea why these would appear later in the week. Geez. Rugby is a game that not only punishes you on the pitch, but afterwards in inexplicable, random doses as well!

B-SIDE MATCH AGAINST JAMES RIVER, SATURDAY 17 OCTOBER

Since it was Cari's birthday I passed on the road trip with Suburbs and simply drove to Richmond myself; it only took an hour and 45 minutes. That way I could leave right after the match to go out to dinner.

The a-side got beaten yet again, which leaves us 0 and 5! Western Suburbs is currently on the bottom of the pile of Division II-South. The b-side, which I played, got beaten as well, 28-7. We put a try on the scoreboard this time, however, so it wasn't quite as bad as last week's match.

It wasn't a lot of fun from my standpoint - early in the first half I took a blow to the chest in a maul, where Kevin had been thrown on me the week before - and spent the game in pain. (Towards the end I have to admit I was looking forward to the final whistle.) That took something out of me, and so did the weather; it was rather warm. Still, I did two good tackles, and wasn't moved in the scrums. Our scrums were something of a mess, and I'm really not sure why. It seemed we were missing a cadence; that the other side hit us before we were fully prepared.

One of my tackles was on a guy my size, and it was a pretty hard hit. For a minute there it looked like he was going to go out on a knee injury, but he didn't. (I found out later why: one of his teammates yelled and asked if that was his old flag football injury). It would have been understandable if he had - he played the entire a-side game and was a recycle for ours. Another tackle was on a guy who had a rugby player tattooed on his back! He had a good head of steam going and it was a shock as well, but he, too, went down. So far I don't think I've missed a single tackle in a game, which must be a highlight of my first season's play. That extra weight I carry around is good for something, I guess.

It was kind of hard to start this match. In the a-side match I saw a Suburbs player break his wrist, and a James River player damage his knee. Both were lying on the ground screaming, and the thought that passed through my mind was "There but for the Grace of God go I - or perhaps not!" Maybe there's a serious injury in my future... Anyway, a long delay before we actually started our match didn't help things. Rugby is a game that's best gotten on with and not over analyzed.

So, I'm back to where I was last week: sore chest, sore back, popping ibuprofen. Looks like I'll be taking it easy in practices again.

Tuesday Evening Practice, 20 October

This was one night I probably should have stayed at home... So far I haven't gone into a practice or come home from one feeling worse. My chest still hurts from Saturday's game (bruised rib I suppose), and I'm catching a cold or flu as well. So I did a couple of laps and some rucking and mauling exercises with light contact, and then took myself out when I began to drag. After all, the game is more important than the practice, and I want to be ready for the upcoming TRW (Total Rugby Weekend: b-side game on Saturday, Old Boys game on Sunday and a televised international game in the evening).

Still, it's hard to watch the others do sprints, ball passing and teamwork exercises, etc. and not take part. It makes me feel like a quitter. Big ol' Sean showed up for practice with a black eye, and I'm sure others were just as sore as I. Neil - the fellow who broke his wrist - showed up with his arm in a cast, and Kevin (the club president) had ankle problems and passed on practice.

Winning or losing season notwithstanding, these are hard, tough men. Most of them have been examples for me in ways they're unaware of, and I'm honored to be in the same club and on the same game pitch with them. My responsibility, of course, is to provide an example to others.

But not tonight or tomorrow. I'm taking a sick day off from work and staying in bed!

Thursday Evening Practice, 22 October

Yeah, I caught a cold, all right. Only this time it wasn't bad; I think it's because I was taking echinacea. My wife started giving it to me in tea when I felt sick, and it seems to work. Colds aren't as severe, and sometimes they can be shrugged off entirely. So that, Nyquil, and a few good night's sleep seems to have done the trick. My chest is still sore from where I think I have a bruised rib, but it's not bad enough to keep me from play or practice.

Anyway, we did rucking, mauling and line-out exercises in an effort to give the a-side a more assured bag of tricks with which to beat Virginia (I think it's UVA) this weekend. This won't be easy as they're currently the number two club in the division.

Tonight's practice was cold - I was glad we were doing a lot of running. Weighed 244 when I got on the scale Friday morning - that's 21 pounds lost since I started rugby!

B-SIDE MATCH AGAINST VIRGINIA, SATURDAY 24 OCTOBER

The Suburbs a-side won its first game of the season - a game that we really should have lost, Virginia being the number two club in the division and we being the bottom. The score was 18-15.

We b-siders also won our match 17-12, which was a much more exciting game. I took part in the first half, the coaches pulling me out to make substitutions for guys who wanted to play. (They also knew I was playing the next day and wanted to "preserve" me - hmf.) Anyway, we played an honest-to-goodness b-side this time rather than recycled a-siders, which was nice for a change. These guys were all young college kids from U Va - and I have learned there's a major difference between a men's club and a college club (not that this was what U Va is, but it's sort of like that). It was a real rugby education for them, as we forwards constantly overpowered their forwards in mauls and scrums - I'm sure there were a lot of aching limbs in Charlottesville the next day. One Old Boy prop of ours pointed out that since we were pushing and collapsing them, all we had left to do was tromp over them - which is what happened in the second half. I was in one collapsed scrum caused by a Virginian playing prop for the very first time in a match; he had the distinct misfortune to be paired against one of our biggest, most experienced and meanest Old Boys, who also easily scored our first try after we shoved them down the field nearly to the try line. Anyway, strength and technique is everything for a prop, and my admiration for those guys continue to grow.

Our French player Cyrille, whom I seem to spend a lot of time in the past three months hoisting in the air, is becoming a fixture of the club. Not only does he lend a sense of Gallic style to the proceedings by playing with his collar stylishly turned up, whenever he gets the ball a-siders standing on the sidelines cry "Allez! Allez!" while holding their beers.

I missed a tackle in this match against a rather short but agile fellow. At the last second he did a swerve and evaded me - drat! I guess I actually prefer to tackle guys about my size and speed... The referee for this match (an Old Boy of the international touring side) looked like Jerry Garcia, and he actually sin binned one of our guys whom I didn't recognize. (I found out later he was invited by someone else, and played Division I rugby with NOVA for a time.) He was warned about dangerous play after trying to twist a guy's head in a maul, and the second time brought on the sin-binning. Good player, though, very aggressive. Perhaps too much so for b-side.

Anyway, afterwards we all headed to "the Clubhouse," a bar in Manassas, where I had a surprisingly good cheeseburger, being ravenous. When I was distracted by Sean's baby a rednecky bargirl took my plate away before I was completely finished with the fries.

OLD BOYS MATCH AGAINST WEST POTOMAC, SUNDAY 25 OCTOBER

The Total Rugby Weekend continued with this match - which we lost. I forget the score, but I think they were ahead by a try and a conversion. We were supposed to win it, according to everyone I talked to; West Potomac obviously had another opinion. The a-side version of these guys are currently Division III players, and we normally beat the Old Boys side. In fact, the Irish Wild Geese, whom we soundly whipped, just whipped WP badly. Oh well. We benefit from an upset on Saturday and suffer from one on Sunday.

After having played three Old Boys games and five b-side matches, I am now convinced that, as far as a forward is concerned, the Old Boys games are tougher than the b-side games. While it is true that the pace is slower - I was frequently the first forward to arrive at the breakdowns in play, thanks to all the conditioning I've gotten from attending practice - the Old Boys tend to be a lot heavier and more aggressive in rucks and mauls. The experience makes a difference as well, of course. Old Boys know exactly what to do with a ball, everyone wants it badly, and everyone knows how to take advantage of mistakes without hesitation. What's more, an Old Boy will be more inclined to push the envelope as far as offsides is concerned.

The game pitch - if one can use this term for what we played on - was far more dirt than grass, and I got scraped up on a couple of occasions. During some of the scrums I'm sure we were breathing more dust than oxygen.

At one point I was headed for the try line but got stopped and failed to hand off the ball, it turning into a nasty maul. So close, yet so far away. Oh, well. Do locks make trys very often? Not that I can see. Our lot seems to be hard, gritty work in the scrums, rucks and mauls, an occasional bit of limelight in line-outs (I did well in this once again but wasn't used often in this match), with the glory and flash going to the mid-fielders and backs. Forwards' trys seem to be collaborative things when they happen.

When the New Zealand Waikato vs. Canterbury game came on TV that night - the last third of the TRW - I began to doze off from my exertions earlier in the day and went to bed early. Even watching the awesome pace of a top-level game couldn't keep Morpheus at bay.

Right now a rib in my chest still seems to be bruised (there's some pain when I cough and sneeze), a joint on a finger in my left hand and a finger on my right hand is swollen, causing restricted movement (I tape them to other fingers during games), my arms, lower legs and shins are tender, my left knee is sore and my back occasionally aches. I also have bruises all over my upper arms and a sore left shoulder from scrumming. My left ear is puffy and swollen - I don't know what from, but it sure hurts when I get into position in scrums. As much as I enjoy this game and will be sorry to see it end until February, I will be happy to rest and heal!

Back in August I promised myself a rugby poster when I wasn't such a wanna-be. I bought it and three others just as clever like it - they go up in my office this week.

Tuesday Evening Practice, 27 October

Since I have a family thing going on Thursday night, this was my last practice - or so I hope!

There was a grim, determined mood prevailing at this practice. The MARFU (Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union - the controlling organization for club rugby hereabouts) standings are in. We have to win our match against Rocky Gorge this Saturday. If we lose or tie, then we remain at the bottom of the Division II-South men's clubs and have to play a challenge match against Roanoke, a Division III club. If they win the playoff - a possibility - then they become a new Division II club and we drop to Division III status. Ouch! So, Thursday practice promises to be intense, and there will be a home pitch do-or-die effort this Saturday. The coach will do all sorts of creative substitutions as needed; this ought to be interesting to watch. Earlier this year in April, Gorge just beat WS (it was the match I watched when I first became interested), so there's a nice bit of symmetry at play here.

We did a lot of ball passing exercises and some sprints. Steve McNair, the Old Boys prop and captain, came out to practice and I spent some time jawing with him instead of sprinting. I brought up my latent desire to try some propping and he gently discouraged it. Starting rugby at my age is do-able. Starting propping isn't a very good idea. It's rough work - a lot of the injuries in rugby take place among the front row players - and one prop wrote that "props aren't made, they're born." So I'm wise enough to accept this advice and stay in the second row, where I probably belong.

B-SIDE MATCH AGAINST ROCKY GORGE, SATURDAY 31 OCTOBER

The a-side did what it had to do and won this one 27-10, so Richmond United is now at the bottom of the barrel and gets to play Roanoke for Division II status.

We lost our b-side game for the usual reasons - Gorge didn't bring a b-side with them, and we wound up playing their a-side and a lot of our guys. We showed up in force seeing as how this was so important a match. The first half was a real battle, and we confined them to one try (which was made by our big mean Old Boy prop playing for them). Towards the end of the half there was a lot of determined defense as Gorge was practically sitting on our try line, but we didn't break and held very well in the scrums, which were repeated over and over again. I think we did far more scrums with this match than in any other I have played so far, and I certainly did my part. In fact, I don't recall getting pushed back at all, and just about all the scrums were vigorously contested.

The second half was a real mess, with their being able to score against us pretty much at will. (Two of the tries were by a teenage Suburban, whom we hissed and shoved around when we all met to shake hands at the end of the match.) I'm not sure why this was so, but it was. One dolt tackled me when I didn't have the ball, and I took a fairly major hit to my right knee, which is now sore and cannot bend easily.

This one was probably my best match as far as fitness and self-assurance was concerned. We played 35 minute halves - nearly a regulation 40 minutes! - and I didn't tire. In fact, most of the time I was rarin' to go. Must have been those Excedrins and the cool weather. Anyway, twice I grabbed the ball from off the base and headed up to the try line only to be stopped; I think on both times I was able to hand the ball off to a teammate. Anyway, one of these days I'm going to make it!

Went to the Clubhouse afterwards, had a too-rare burger, socialized and left to take the kids trick or treating. Wished I could stay longer as I was having fun... I'm actually going to miss those guys, practices and games - but there's always Spring season and something called a "Winter Banquet." And time to heal, which I badly need.


So, Gentle Reader, my first season of rugby ends, and I am no longer a rookie. I know this because at the end of the b-side match the call went out "Rookies clean up!" I muttered "I don't feel like a rookie," and Matt Clark, the a-side captain, was kind enough to respond, "You aren't. Let others do it." Out of respect for my efforts or deference to my advanced age, I don't know, but there it is, it's official. Thank you, Matt.

I played eight matches: five b-side, three Old Boys. Would I have thought I'd have a successful season of rugby like this earlier this year, watching it on TV? Absolutely not. I have once again extended myself past what I thought I would or could do, the same way I did when I finally graduated from BYU with an engineering degree, or finished USMC boot camp.

There is a lot of room for improvement, though.

Strengths

Scrums: My favorite activity. I think I've gotten getting the art of being low down, now, and I can certainly lock out, hold and push. My bones and muscles have seem to be conditioned to scrums as I rarely feel back pains or major shoulder pains anymore. Also, I'm keeping the pressure off the hooker - at least none of them have complained to me!

Hoisting in line outs: As long as the jumper weighs under 210 or so, I can military press him so his hands will be up in the air about 11 feet. With my height and his height, that's serious air. Keeping him there and lowering him gracefully is no problem, either.

Tackling: I only missed one game tackle this season, and scored some good hits on some pretty big guys, and others who were moving pretty fast.

Aggressive play: At the beginning of the season I really didn't want to handle the ball. By the end I badly wanted to.

Showing up: I remember reading somewhere that just showing up was a lot of the battle. Since the season began I've missed maybe four practices. The desire to play is certainly there.



Weaknesses

Pace: I've improved dramatically with this since the beginning of the season - and the cooler fall weather has certainly helped - but I still need to run faster, and get from the scrums to the breakdowns more quickly.

Kicking: Very little practice here. I think I'm going to buy a ball and work on this skill during the winter.

Catching kicked balls: I catch these successfully about 1/3rd of the time. It doesn't come up much, but when it does and I blow it, it's embarrassing!

Passing: I thought initially that this was a strength, but I've done enough klutzy passes in practice to realize I need work. Fortunately, as a forward I'm not expected to pass very much. I'm supposed to drive forward with the ball, engage the opposition forwards and set the ball on the ground for others to "play off the base."

Tactics: A lot of the time I'm still approaching the rucks and mauls not entirely sure of what to do. This needs to be more instinctive, which will, I expect, come from experience.



Best experience of the season: Doing repeated successful line-outs in the second Old Boys game against the Irish Wild Geese. When I jumped I won every one of ours and even snatched away some of theirs.

Second best experience of the season: In the b-side game against Virginia, after a successfully won line-out ball my jumper caught, we drove the VA forwards darn near all the way up to the opposition try line. Finally unable to maintain a formation of any sort, two or three orange and blue jerseys hit the ground at once (they were all bound together) and I realized we had clear possession of the ball and a clear run to the try line, which one of our Old Boys instinctively went for and made. I enjoyed this because it was an awesome example of our forward power, like many of the scrums we dominated.

Worst experience of the season: It happened in the b-side game against Norfolk. After a tackle I landed on my back and somebody made Kevin Corry land on my chest. It hurt like mad, and continued to hurt for weeks afterwards. (It still hurts.) Lesson learned: Stay on your feet as much as possible. You can get hurt on the ground.


Click here to go to "Rugby: The Second Season." (The Continued Rugby Adventures of Wes Clark.)