In Rugby Town USA

Last year at PPL Park , also home to this weekend's championships. CLARK DeLEON
Last year at PPL Park , also home to this weekend's championships. CLARK DeLEON
Posted: June 02, 2013

How many of you have played rugby? I ask because of a recent Esquire magazine article: "The 75 Things Every Man Should Do." No. 1 on the bucket list was "Play rugby."

Show of hands, please. How many of you can cross rugby off your list?

Wow, that's a lot of women. More and more all the time. Perhaps you've seen them on TV this weekend during the two-day Collegiate Rugby Championship at PPL Park in Chester. The men's final will be broadcast live on NBC at 4 p.m. Sunday.

We many. We happy many. We band of rugby brothers and sisters. Our numbers are growing larger every year. And the game itself is getting better, faster, more athletic - more intelligent.

Entering this third seven-a-side collegiate championship from Philadelphia - advertised as "the World's Toughest Sport From America's Toughest City" - the two-time defending champions hail from Dartmouth.

On Wednesday evening during a welcoming reception in Center City for the 20 participating university teams, former Gov. Ed Rendell had a question for rugby powerhouse teams such as California, Arizona, Life, and Wisconsin: "How did you let an Ivy League school beat you?"

Rendell, who has become the city's ambassador to the national rugby championship, said the game had everything Philadelphians love in a sport: heart, hard hits, athleticism, and nonstop action.

He announced that Philadelphia would host the New Zealand All Blacks, the real-life version of the scary dudes in the black jerseys from the movie Invictus, in a match against the U.S. national rugby team, the Eagles, on Nov. 9 at PPL Park.

"Our goal is to make Philadelphia the rugby capital of the United States of America," Rendell said, citing the 6,000 men, women, boys, and girls playing organized rugby in the region.

Certainly this collegiate championship has raised the city's profile in the U.S. rugby community. "This is probably the most important weekend in American rugby," said Jack Clark, the legendary coach who has led California rugby to no fewer than 22 national championships. He repeated his comments to Rugby Magazine about the importance of this weekend's national exposure to college rugby: "It's our biggest opportunity to grow the game. It's the biggest stage there is in U.S. rugby."

This is music to the ears of many of us survivors of savage, decades-old rugby turf wars fought by Philadelphia-area teams against clubs from New York, Washington, Baltimore, and Boston.

We battled on hard-baked, grass-challenged, beer-tab-littered fields flanked by boom boxes playing loud Spanish pop music in the Bronx. We slogged through icy puddles and boot-sucking mud in Anacostia Park in the nation's capital. We suffered the dreary cold and unforgiving swirling winds of Randall's Island in the East River.

We had the time of our lives.

In Baltimore, once, a missing crossbar on the goalpost was replaced by a clothesline. Winged Foot, from the New York Athletic Club, had a nice pitch except for the oak tree in the end zone with a big pad around its middle. One time in Harrisburg we played into a headwind so strong that a punted ball would land behind the kicker.

And like the Philadelphia boxers of that era, we took our best shots at one another. In Division One there could be only one champion in the Eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Union, and we played against one another like brothers who battle with a special kind of hate.

Whitemarsh hated Philadelphia. Blackthorn hated South Jersey. Doylestown hated Bethlehem. And on any given Saturday, you'd get beaten by the team you didn't hate so much.

We were grown men (well, sort of). We had jobs and wives and families. And you'd never know what we'd look like at work on Monday morning. Inquirer photographer Jerry Benene gave me the nickname "Zipperhead" because of all the dings, dents, and stitches on my face after Saturday matches.

The actor Richard Burton gave up rugby because his movie contract forbade him from playing. He wrote, "I was a bad insurance risk against certain dread teams in dead-end valleys who would have little respect, no respect, or outright disrespect for what I was pleased to call my face."

Burton's rugby memoir, The Last Match, begins simply: "It's difficult for me to know where to start with rugby." This is followed by an epic and delightful second sentence:

"I come from a fanatically rugby-conscious Welsh miner's family, know so much about it, have read so much about it, have heard with delight so many massive lies and stupendous exaggerations about it, and have contributed my own fair share, and five of my six brothers played it, one with some distinction, and I mean I even knew a Welsh woman from Taibach who before a home match at Aberavon would drop goals from around 40 yards with either foot to entertain the crowd, and her name, I remember, was Annie Mort and she wore sturdy shoes, the kind one reads about in books as 'sensible,' though the recipient of a kick from one of Annie's shoes would have been not so much sensible as insensible, and I even knew a chap called Five Cush Cannon who won the sixth replay of a cup final (the previous five encounters, having ended with the scores 0-0, 0-0, 0-0, 0-0, 0-0 including extra time) by throwing the ball over the bar from a scrum 10 yards out in a deep fog and claiming a dropped goal.

"And getting it."


Clark DeLeon's column appears regularly in Currents. E-mail him at deleonc88@aol.com.

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