Sunday, June 7, 2009

'Rugby Gets in Your Blood'

This was undoubtably the hardest story I ever had to write - and I blame them. You see, the only way they would be interviewed is if I would come join them at a house party and drink with them. Now I am a drinker, so I said I would. But I brought my micro-cassette recorder and three tapes, and the last two tapes were useless. I couldn't tell what I was asking, let alone what any of them were answering. Though, in moments of some lucidity, I could tell we were discussing Iraq, the tax base, Canadian girls, and the NFL. But, as God as my witness, everything in the story had to come off the first tape (and most of that was off the first side of the first tape). These guys say they've never lost a party. They're not lying.

It has been said that soccer is a gentlemen’s game played by hooligans, but that rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen. It is a violent game, fast moving and dangerous, immortalized by the bumper sticker that reads, “Give Blood. Play Rugby.” In Jackson, those gentlemen who participate in the hooligan’s game are known as the Jackson Rugby Football Club.

Though the majority of local sports fans are not even aware that the club exists, the Jackson Rugby FC began in 1974 and has been active since. The club competes nationally with 365 different teams in their division. Currently the team plays their matches at Chastain School, at 4650 Manhattan Road.

Locally, the men of the club number between twenty-five and thirty, depending on who is asked. The fluid numbers are accounted for easily. These are not professional players. These are men that practice twice a week, play games every Saturday, and have to foot their own bills on road trips during the seasons. Some men are not able to make games or practices with any regularity, some are on leaves of absence, and some are limited to only being available at certain times. But most of them are die-hards, adjusting their work and home schedules to allow them to fully participate in rugby and all of its aspects.

Rugby is one of the oldest team sports in existence. Early variants of the game were played several hundred years ago, but its current form has been around since 1823, when William Webb Ellis, a monitor at the Rugby School in the midlands of England, overhauled some of the then-current rules of the game and made it his own. The rules have been changed and modified numerous times in the one hundred and eighty one years since, but the game is substantially the same.

Both American-style football and Australian Rules football sprang from rugby. Many of the terms are used in both sports: forward pass, fullback, halfback, punt, place kick, and offsides are all used. Rugby is played on a 100-meter-long field – the “pitch” – as opposed to a 100-yard long field. Goalposts stand at each end of the pitch and kicking the ball between the forks results in points on the board. Even the post-touchdown extra point in football comes from rugby’s conversion kick.

But unlike football, rugby is a game of constant motion and speed. During a match, players must play both offense and defense and only minimal substitutions are allowed. Players must be prepared to be on their feet, running and tackling, for most of the game.

The match consists of two forty-minute halves. The clock runs continually, stopping only for injuries. Players are penalized for unnecessarily delaying the game in any way.

This kind of hard play demands a certain level of fitness. These men have it, but these are not the typical athletes. Toughness is more important to a rugby player than physique. As such, potbellies abound, and a six-pack is more likely to refer to cold beer than to abs.

“The majority of guys who are really good athletes aren’t chiseled,” says Blair Lobrano, a prop. “I have a background in Olympic weightlifting. You can be fit and not have the physique of a Greek god. The athletes we see on TV are being marketed, sold to you. They need to look good.” He believes that rugby players need something more important than a chiseled physique.
“It’s a sort of mental and physical toughness. It’s that desire to keep going, because the guy standing next to you is also still going.”

Lock forward Ray Wiltshire, known as “Mouth of the South,” agrees. “Rugby is controlled violence. You can’t be a wallflower, as far as worrying about being hurt. You’re going to get stepped on. You’re going to get scraped, scratched, bruised, and beat up. You have to be tough and a little rough around the edges. I’ve learned to recruit anybody of any size. Look at little Jason over there. He’s tough as woodpecker lips.”

Wiltshire has been playing rugby since 1990, when he graduated from Millsaps College. A four-year football player there, he was brought to rugby by a friend. He says there are many different ways that guys stumble into the rugby scene.

“I happened to walk into the Dutch Bar wearing, unbeknownst to me at the time, a rugby jersey,” says Jason “Booger” Guillot, who plays outside center. “I proceeded to get ragged by the players who were there. They did it hard enough that I finally came out and practiced with them. I started playing in 1999 and never stopped.”

“I met the guys in the Dutch Bar,” says Bradley “Opie” Barnes, a wing forward. When I first met them, I thought, I don’t need to be playing rugby. These guys are entirely too big. But I kind of had a little crush on this girl who said that she knew a bunch of the guys who played. She said she was always there. So I said, ‘I’m going to start playing.’”

To a man, the players all agree that the camaraderie they share is one of the reasons they stay with the club.

“You’re looking at a lot of likeminded, loudmouthed, very opinionated, very strong personalities,” Wiltshire says, which brings laughter from most of his teammates.

“We don’t play because anybody pays us – or whether or not anybody watches us, for that matter,” says Guillot. “We play for the parties after the game, and for the camaraderie. We don’t play for glory. God knows there’s not too much of that. We’ve approached a lot of groups for sponsorships and been turned down. I’m telling you, girls’ soccer teams get more financial support than we do.”

Except from former players. Recently, a group of former (and a few current) players formed OBIG, the Old Boys’ Investment Group. They purchased a piece of land off Medgar Evers Boulevard and are turning it into a rugby playing field.

Club President Mitch Holland, and proud OBIG member, says:

“We’re going to have two rugby pitches there. We’ve leveled the fields and planted the grass. We hope to play on them in September or October this year. In the long term, we need to add a good road and parking. We have a dirt road, but if it rains, you can’t get in at all. In the very long term, we want the two fields to become practice and secondary fields. The premiere field will go in when we have the funds. We plan to have a clubhouse and a video tower, so we can tape our matches.”

OBIG, like the club, is made up primarily of white-collar workers. Several doctors, lawyers, and engineers have regular places on the team.

“Everyone has a degree,” Wiltshire says. “Most of these guys have post-graduate degrees. Well, Opie doesn’t have a degree, since he’s still in college. He’s the baby of the team.”
The social aspect of the club is important to the members. Carlo Bagliane came from Capetown, South Africa, to play baseball for Belhaven College. Bagliane, known as “Bags,” the team’s flyhalf, describes his need for the team.

“I got married. I met my wife. She wouldn’t go back, so I stayed here.” His teammates chant, “Green card! Green card!” while he tells the story.

“I needed some sport to play. There’s no other sport here that’s a club. There’s no soccer in Jackson that’s a club. There’s no baseball in Jackson that’s a club. But there was a rugby club.”
To many of the members, the social aspect is a chance for relaxing and having a few – or several – drinks with friends. The team practices on Tuesday and Thursday during the season and has regular Saturday games. Games invariably end with both teams going to a bar or club together to do a bit of bilateral celebrating. But the celebrating also tends to occur during the week, too.

“To keep in practice,” Bagliane says. Apparently it pays off.

“I can honestly say that we may have lost games, but we’ve never lost a party,” Wiltshire says. “There’s been many places where if we win, the other team gets pissy. They drink a few beers and leave. We’ll kill their keg and drink at their bar until the last guy is ready to leave.”

“Or get kicked out,” Guillot says.

“In Pensacola we did get thrown out,” Wiltshire admits. He says that their combination of hard playing and hard partying brings them an unusual mix of fans.

“We get some fans of extreme sports. We get the oddly curious, the people who just want to see a train wreck out there. But believe it or not, there are a lot of women that rugby appears to attract. I don’t want to toot our horns too much. We’re not the prettiest guys, but a lot of us have very nice looking girlfriends.”

They also have many close friendships.

“The best thing about rugby to me is that the most important person on the field is the man standing next to me,” says teammate John Suyes, who recently returned to the team. Several others nod and agree.

“I’ve been with the club since 1980,” Holland says. “But I got away from it a bit during the 90’s. I’m back now. The guys who are here now remind me of my old teammates. They have that team spirit. They get along well. They remind me of how the team was when I played many years ago.”

“We’re from a smaller municipality,” says James Charbonneau, who plays both lock and wing forward. “So we’re always recruiting new players. We take young, old, whatever. We want people to know we’re here. We’ve been here a long time.”

“We’re just around the corner,” Guillot agrees. “Chastain School is just off the interstate.”

Charbonneau invites those interested in playing to, “Come out and play with us. We’ll train anyone. You didn’t have to play in college or in high school.” But be warned, you might become devoted.

“As long as my body can take it, I’m going to play,” Bagliane states.

“I’m here for the haul,” Barnes says. “As long as I’m able to go, I’m going to play. When I’m not able to go, if I have any money, I’m going to put a little in to support.”

“Rugby gets in your blood,” says Wiltshire. “You will love it.”

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