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The Next Best Thing: Pittsburgh Rugby

For Americans, rugby may be a strange sport to watch. At the start, two teams of mostly burly players line up, forming a “scrum.” When the action starts, one player taps the ball against his (or her) foot and starts to run. The field then explodes with galloping feet, cleats tearing grass from its roots while the player with the ball runs, sprinting and halting  in hiccups of movement, until s/he is surrounded by opposing players. The player then whirls around and passes the ball backwards. And this isn’t the corkscrew throw of a football, or basketball’s bounce-pass or layup; the rugby ball, shaped and sized like a healthy watermelon, is tossed.

In full-contact rugby, the action is routinely interrupted by long, crushing tackles – players pile on top of each other, creating a mound of writhing humanity, as the ball is wrestled back into the air.

“Some people think they’ve seen it before,” says Claire Preville, the 32-year-old secretary of the Pittsburgh Rugby Club, as she stretches on a Schenley Park lawn. “Or they just look at you like you’re that monkey in the corner playing the cymbals.”

While many have yet to see it, the popularity of rugby is surging in Western Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Harlequins, the Division I team that made it to the Final 8 of the National Championship in 2003, boast 45 active players and an alumni roster of 350. The team was formed in 1971 by Pitt alumni and now, says full-time Director of Operations Matt   Rosemeyer, they are raising the bar for rugby in the region. It's a sport that, unlike others, you can pick up later in life as a player or fan.

Preville wasn’t athletic in her youth, and she had never heard of the sport when she arrived in Pittsburgh some years back (ironic, since her father comes from Montreal and her mother from Scotland). When “a guy” introduced Preville to rugby, she found a group of tough, fun-loving people – including students, physicians and office workers – who all loved the hardscrabble European game. “I don’t like to run, and I don’t like to go to the gym,” Preville explains. “I like the camaraderie. This is my gym.”

The Club
You don’t have to try out and you don’t pay dues – unless you start going to tournaments, which is when you know you’re diehard. Every Tuesday and Thursday, at about 7 p.m., the Pittsburgh Rugby Club meets for informal games in “The Oval” of Schenley Park, an oblong running track that circumscribes public tennis courts, a baseball diamond and a soccer field. The clubbers use only an open swathe of grass; they drop their backpacks and Nalgene bottles in the corner and quickly divide into teams. For each summer practice, as many as 40 people show up for “run-touch” games. “It’s like the flag-football version of rugby,” says Preville. There’s no tackling, no pile-ups, just lots of running, stopping and passing. The group is so large that the players often play two games simultaneously.

Many players are new, lining up awkwardly at the scrum-line or dropping the ball by accident. Others are longtime veterans: Dan Talbert, 38, isn’t just the Club’s vice president but also coach of the University of Pittsburgh’s competitive rugby team. Like Preville, Talbert is a native Pittsburgher who had never heard of rugby until he got to college, when a friend coaxed him into playing. “From the first practice, I was hooked,” says Talbert.

The Club incorporates between 50 and 80 members, depending on the year. Most play for fun, others go to tournaments. To fund their fall competitions, the Club holds an annual Brewfest and a regular golf outing. And like any good European-style club, each practice ends with a trip to Ruggers Pub in the Southside – a bar established and operated by Club members. Each game also ends with a trip to Ruggers, where opposing teams toast each other’s prowess.

“Rugby is such an underground sport,” says Talbert. “Western Pennsylvania is so football-oriented. But if they knew about rugby, they’d love it.”

Many newcomers are surprised to learn that the Rugby Club, formed by Pitt students, was founded back in 1964.

Mean Girls
While these informal practices allow men and women to play together, official tournaments are divided by gender. The men’s team travels throughout the autumn for rugby’s official league season, competing against various Midwestern teams. But in terms of on-paper victories, the men’s team pales before the Pittsburgh Angels.

Like the Pittsburgh Passion (the local women’s football team), the Angels are an all-women, full-contact team that has won national attention. Competing in Division II rugby isn’t that difficult – players are most burdened by paying for transportation and entry fees – but winning a spot in the national championship is hard as hell. The Angels adhere to the same rules as men’s rugby, running and tackling with adrenaline-amplified force.

In 2000, the Angels finished second in the Midwest Championships. In 2003, they finished third. Then, in 2005, the greatest victory of all: The Angels won the Midwest Championship and entered the Nationals; they finished competing in Raleigh, North Carolina, as the third-place team in the nation. But Preville, like her teammates, is hoping for even more. “The goal of the whole club is to get our own field,” she says. “I want to win a national championship."

Pain-Lite
If you walk through London during rugby season, you’re bound to see posters pasted on Underground walls, depicting scowling, mud-spattered men with blood smeared across their chins and cheeks.

“You have to have a certain level of disregard for your body,” advises Talbert, who suffered a torn MCL in his knee-joint while competing for Pitt and recently hurt his ankle. “But it heals and you keep going on,” he adds. “It happens.”

“It’s perceived as a little bit rough,” comments Preville. “But injuries are few and far between.” At a recent tournament, her teammates suffered a split eyebrow and a bruised lip, but even these cosmetic injuries are a very rare event. “I mean, if you lead with your head, yes, you’ll break yourself.”

The sport is even suitable for children, who have inherited Pittsburgh’s rugby tradition: The Club shares a community rugby program with the Pittsburgh Harlequins (see below), and thanks to their cooperative coaching, students from Schenley, Carrick and Fox Chapel high schools have learned the game.
 
The Union Makes Them Strong
And then there are the Pittsburgh Harlequins. The team is a member of the USA Rugby Football Union, which oversees nearly every major competition in the United States. But the Pittsburgh Rugby Football Club is Division II; the most competitive Harlequins are Division I.
 
The Harlequins work with high school students and they’re also open to newcomers. But the Harlequins have upped the ante: They practice on more official turf, Founders Field, a top-notch sports facility in Indianola Township that opened in 2001. Many of their tournaments – in which they compete with other Division I teams – are sponsored by the National Guard. While the Harlequins share their field with a number of soccer teams, they are clearly Founders Field’s most prestigious club. The only thing the Harlequins lack is their own bar – although they are sponsored by Piper’s Pub.

“When I got back [to Pittsburgh] in ’97, the Harlequins were the more competitive team," says Rosemeyer. Now, he says, if you want to play more aggressive rugby, “there are no other Division 1 teams within 100 miles of here."

After years of playing on-and-off with the Harlequins, Rosemeyer has mostly settled into the background. “I am mostly retired," he says. "I’ve got a lot of miles on me. I run the association. I am the only full-time person. On any given day, I could be the director of operations, or I could be the grass-mower and weed-puller.”
  
On Aug. 24, the Harlequins host the USA Sevens All-Star Championships (a “sevens” match is rugby writ small – instead of 15 players per team, only seven play). But before spectators watch their first big-league game, they can catch the second annual Steel City Sevens, on July 19, hosted by the Pittsburgh Rugby Club. Meanwhile, clubs are scattered throughout the Midwest, from Pittsburgh to Morgantown to Cleveland and Chicago.

“No matter where you go,” says Preville, “someone knows someone who plays rugby.”
Robert Isenberg is a writer and actor. He teaches playwriting at Duquesne University.
Claire Preville (top), Dan Talbert (stretching).

All photographs copyright Brian Cohen

 



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