'Gentleman's Game': Rough and Rugby

June 1, 2005

Scrumming: the fight for possession

Scrumming: the fight for possession. Les Todd.

Blood spills onto the freshly cut grass. While one player has been knocked unconscious, another pulls himself out of the game on the verge of regurgitating his breakfast. Groans escape through clenched teeth as heads spiked with mohawks drill into opposing players' stomachs. Four-letter words are thrown around faster than the ball, and mothers in the stands seem to breathe only when play stops temporarily. One coach impatiently paces the sidelines and shouts instructions to his team. The tattoo on his bulging left calf reads, "Give Blood, Play Rugby." Behind Wallace Wade, on a windy day in February, the undefeated Duke rugby team takes on rival Wake Forest in an ACC showdown.

"To play rugby, the main mindset needed is really putting yourself in the position to hurt or to get hurt," says senior forward David Dabney. "It's more willpower than anything--willing yourself to get out there and tackle the biggest guy on the field." Dabney, who learned the game while living in Australia, is just one of several team members who bring an international flavor to Duke's style. Head coach Ian Cumming, a native of Wales, leads a squad peppered with veteran Canadian and English players, along with many American students with little or no playing experience.

In rugby, fifteen players on each team battle to score a try, which is accomplished by crossing into the goal area and touching the ball to the ground. A try is worth five points and the ensuing kicked conversion is worth two. All players are allowed to run with the ball and tackle. A player can kick the ball forward at any time, but can only pass backward. Teammates are not allowed to block for the ball carrier but follow closely behind him. When tackled, the ball carrier must release the ball immediately, and another player then picks up the ball to advance it. The action rarely stops.

Field of schemes: uneasy going for goal

Field of schemes: uneasy going for goal. Les Todd.

The exact origins of rugby are debated, but many believe that the game was born in 1823 when students at the Rugby School in Warwickshire started playing a distinctly different version of soccer. Legend has it that one William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and, with complete disregard for the rules, ran it into the goal. Rugby became an Olympic sport in 1900 and was last played at the 1924 Games in Paris, when the United States beat France 17-13 for the gold medal. Shortly after the Paris Games, the IOC cancelled rugby as an Olympic sport because of its violence, even though rugby sold more tickets than the same track and field events later glorified in the movie Chariots of Fire. The Rugby World Cup, played every four years, was created in 1987, and the sport's popularity has grown dramatically since then. Some 3-billion people watched the World Cup on television in 2003. Rugby has been played at Duke since the spring of 1962.

In spite of its fast-paced intensity, rugby receives little attention in the U.S. Duke sophomore Chris Sung, a Vancouver native who plays fullback, says that American rugby suffers from a lack of tradition and major high-school and college programs. "A lot of my friends from high school are ridiculously good players, and they stayed in Canada because they could play rugby at a higher level," says Sung. Dabney, the senior forward, says that he has encountered a surprising number of people who are interested in rugby but struggle to find opportunities to play. "I've known people who have played rugby and really enjoyed it but didn't follow up because there was only one team around or they weren't up to the level of the other players."

For many, the word "rugby" conjures up images of toothless, savage ogres with minimal mental capacity. But according to Sung and Dabney, rugby is a "gentleman's game." Contrary to many American sports, etiquette is a large part of the game. The referee's judgment is never questioned. Under the showboating rule, the referee can penalize pompous celebrations after a try by revoking the score. "You don't really want to showboat anyway, because if you do, then everyone is looking to hit you really hard," Sung says. The honor of rugby and mutual respect between teams is upheld regardless of how rough a game may be. "We always have some kind of social event with the other team after the game," Sung says. "We tell them, 'You can stop by. We have a keg.'"

At the Duke-Wake Forest game, two elderly fans watch from lawn chairs at one corner of the field, snacking on some fried chicken and chuckling at the fans' jeers. With no son or nephew on the team, their only reason for coming is to revel in the game they love. As the referee blows the final whistle, Duke celebrates a 37-0 victory over their dejected and exhausted division rival. As the white-haired men slowly stand up to leave, one turns to the other and says, "Now that was a good afternoon."