Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Social Rugby

For many people outside the rugby community, when they think of the sport images of debauchery and antics unfit for public consumption come to mind. They immediately think of hard-hitting, unruly savages guzzling and hurling beer around with disregard for general rules of polite society. All these images carry negative connotations that cause many potential players, supporters, coaches and fans, as well as parents of potential players, to steer clear of rugby teams. Even worse, these connotations allow people to keep their outdated images of the rugby society fresh in their minds, they allow these incorrect notions to be spread instead of the truth and it undermines the positive strides being made on an almost daily basis by rugby enthusiasts world wide.

Things get weird in
Savannah, GA sometimes.
Fortunately, things are changing and the truth about rugby is coming out. That truth is: rugby as it is today has grown from a raucous roots; and those who play, administrate and coach today are trying to legitimize the sport for public consumption while trying to honor its festive past. The name of the game is growth, and for rugby to grow it has to change; and as you look around at players past an present, in clubs long-standing and new, that change is definitely happening - both on and off the field.

"[Rugby] is way more accepted now than in past years," said Thomas Cleary, head coach of the Saint Edward High School rugby team. "Years ago, rugby was seen as a sport where some guys just went out, beat each other up and celebrated. Now that the game is getting more publicity, I think people are seeing the game for what it really is; and that is a very physical and demanding sport that requires a high degree of athleticism and skill to play."

Many people at the helm of rugby clubs around the nation have done away with social aspects of the game all together in order to focus on taking the athletic and competitive sides of the sport more seriously. Others have opted to alter it to suit their needs.

"My OSU team is dry," said Philip Payne, head coach of the Ohio State University women's team. "So socials with us are not like the socials i remember from my B.W. days. We were early adopters but i see it more and more wherever we travel. Since there are so many higher-level opportunities for players now, many more take the game seriously and they take being an athlete seriously."

Jaime Cleary, who has experience with high-level players as well as the Head Coach of the Saint Joseph Academy Jaguars, sees the need for focusing on serious play, but she also recognizes socializing afterwards as a necessity.

"Rugby is moving in the right direction," she said. "Athletes recognize the sport as having strategies, not just tackling the player with the ball. Socializing with the opposing team after the game is still an important tradition, and at that high school level is bonding over game stories and looking at skills to build Ohio's elite teams."

Though the trend towards serious rugby is definitely taking root around the country at all levels, there is still a home and use for social clubs. These teams can serve a number of purposes and do a lot of good for the people who take part in their practices, matches and socials. For those trying out the sport, a social club can allow them to dip their toe in the rugby pool without all the time, and generally financial, commitment a more serious team requires. Also, for people with different obligations that take precedent over sports, social clubs allow them to be rugby's version of the "weekend warrior" and play during his or her free time as their schedule allows. It can also be a place for players who aren't quite as skilled as other high-level players to participate on a level with people at their pace and not have the pressure to be at one hundred per cent one hundred per cent of the time. 

The Columbus Castaways seem to be a team that balances the best of both worlds. While they're not as regimented as more serious clubs might be, they have similar - if not greater success - than their counterparts. The Castaways have run riot in the Division IV and III ranks, seemingly advancing with relative ease. But their focus isn't solely on rugby and they don't get their enjoyment of the sport in 80-minute spurts.

"At a club level I've played Division I and Division IV," said Steve Landes, had coach of the Castaways. "The rugby is what you make of it, but if you're not having fun at least one day out of the week with rugby you're doing it wrong. At Castaways, practices aren't grueling, we win games and we enjoy the Castaways-Scioto Women family time regularly so it's definitely worth it. I haven't enjoyed rugby this much since I was 19."

The Castaways' lighter touch in regards to rugby practices allows people to come to matches and not practices, but if their want to see A side time players must attend trainings. This has allowed the Castaways to do a number of things most clubs divisions above them can't do. They've got a strong core of A side players as well as a B side present at all home games looking to play a match.

The issue becomes what the focus of the club is. A social club can still be a positive force in the rugby world if it is a rugby-focused organization that is merely operating on a different level than other teams around it. When a social team becomes an issue is when it becomes a bumper-sticker team or a t-shirt team - also known as a drinking team with a rugby problem. Rugby should be the primary reason for being in the world this sport creates, with the social aspect as garnish to add a little flavor to it all. When the roles are reversed in a big way, that's when people begin to have problems. The key to maintaining this much-needed focus and balance might be a combination of recognizing the importance and history of the social aspect of rugby while having the maturity and foresight to keep their actions in check, because if people can manage that the global rugby social circle can take them places few would ever dream of going.

Dr. John Bergfeld, who brought rugby to Cleveland, has reaped unforeseen benefits of his rugby-related social experiences during his time with the sport. According to Bergfeld, he has been able to sneak into an event attended by international rugby representatives; and when he was kicked out his South African friends went with him and he was able to meet one of the country's ambassador. Bergfeld has also been invited to speak at numerous medical conventions, not just because of his intelligence and expertise but because of his experience with rugby and his knowledge of how it affects the body.

Players from one team but
different generations share a post-match drink.
"Rugby is unique because of its social aspects and a camaraderie among players throughout the world. I know that on trips to places like New Zealand, Australia, Italy and Germany - when I have made contact with clubs in those countries - I have friends a place to stay," said Bob Borgerding, the founder of rugby in Dayton, Ohio. "I have even attended drink-ups in New Zealand with the All Blacks after a match with Samoa, who were very interested in how rugby was going in the United States. If we lose this social aspect of the game, I believe we will be a poorer sport for it. We will become merely another athletic activity."

Whether teams opt to do away with the social aspect of their team's operations all together, or just tone down the shenanigans to a tolerable level, the fact is that having responsible and flexible men and women in charge of rugby teams can only help the sport grow. They have been an asset to the sport thus far; and as long as they continue their work they should continue to be forces for positive influence in rugby for years to come.

"I believe that those clubs and players that turn away from the social aspects of the game do not experience the joy of rugby," Borgerding said. "The entire cultural aspects of the rugby social is what makes the game truly unique. When you go out and compete hard against another team, and then go and socialize with that team and your opposite number you capture the true spirit of sport. Now I don't appreciate when the social degenerates into drunken debauchery. I believe that denigrates the sport and the spirit of the game."

"When I look back at the game, from when I started til now, I see that the game has grown by leaps and bounds," Cleary said. "There are now high school kids playing games at a very high level. It's impressive to see and now that it's in the grade schools it's only going to get better."

What it seems to boil down to, on every level from youth to high-performance adult teams, is balancing the social with the serious.

"It is huge to be able to bond and bring the guys together," said Paul Holmes of Tiger. "However, it is important to understand the time and place. Many teams can fall into the mistake of not getting the balance or timing right."
Hot competition. Cold beer.

Regardless of how teams choose to deal with the changes in the rugby scene, the fact remains that the social side of the sport is so ingrained in the lifestyle, its clubs and its people that cutting it out completely would do more damage than good. So, the challenge becomes incorporating it in a constructive responsible way.

Younger teams use the social scene to build relationships that will  last well into their adult years. Clubs with adult members not only use the social side as a means to relax and unwind but, often as a means to keep their club afloat. Looking through the Senior ranks, it would be difficult to find a team that is not sponsored by some alcohol vendor, pub or bar. It is safe to say that the survival of the sport is dependent upon the survival of the social. It's necessary to ensure that young players keep having fun and want to continue to play; and it is necessary for most adult clubs to keep their doors open so those young players have somewhere to call their rugby homes.

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