Rugby Players: For the Love of the Game, and a Party

By Jeff Nelson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 9, 2007; SM09

After Will Clapp retired from a well-traveled military career, it seemed a bit odd to find him at an athletic field in Lusby, preparing his 52-year-old body to defend a few square feet of dying grass and dried-out dirt.

The retired master gunnery sergeant could be spending his Saturday morning sipping a smoothie by the Chesapeake Bay or eating crab cakes the size of baseballs at a restaurant down the street. Instead, he was preparing for a collision with 21-year-old Chris Pacious, a 5-foot-11, 240-pound rugby player who said: "I could try to sidestep him, but big guys don't do that. So I just try to step over him."

After the impact, both men appeared unaffected as they got up, but that moment raised the question: Why would anyone do this in retirement?

Simple, Clapp said. "Camaraderie."

That was the common answer from members of the five rugby clubs at Mill Creek Middle School, where the Patuxent River Lions hosted the Phatback 10's, a tournament to help prepare teams for the fall season.

The other participants were Clapp's Quantico Hooligans, made up entirely of Marines; Pacious's club, the Maryland Exiles under-23, a group of college-age players from the state; the Washington Renegades, a U.S. team that recruits gay players; and Iron Rugby, a makeshift team that includes Patuxent players and others not affiliated with a specific club.

Patuxent, Quantico, Maryland and Washington are part of the Potomac Rugby Union, a regional league that, according to its Web site, is made up of 115 clubs from Maryland, Virginia, the District and Pennsylvania.

Saturday's tournament was an exhibition, but that did nothing to prevent roughly 80 men from traveling to the southern tip of Maryland to spend almost six hours mauling one another in 90 degree heat.

"There's no other game like it," said Renegades founder Ned Kieloch. "You beat the hell out of the other guys for 80 minutes, then raise a glass with them afterward. The bond you have with these guys is like nothing I've ever experienced."

"Right now, you're kicking some guy in the face," said Gary Costanzo, president of Patuxent River. "Two hours later, we'll be socializing."

The visiting teams paid an entry fee, partly for supplies and the rest for eating and drinking together late into the night at a local bar.

That postgame ritual is one of many reasons rugby players are passionate about their sport. They note that a person of virtually any size can participate and be as important as anyone else. "There's not a star quarterback or star running back," Clapp said. "Rugby is a game for everyone. It's the last true team sport."

It's also a game most anyone can learn quickly. Several newcomers to the Quantico club figured out the rules as they played. Such was the case for players from each team, in part because of the transient nature of the Washington area.

"I've never seen a rugby team turn away an inexperienced player," said Patuxent's Brian Postus, 28, who taught a few of his new teammates between matches the art of the scrum -- when competing sides jostle for possession of the ball.

"It's going to hurt," he told one apprehensive player.

Despite the physical demands of rugby and the competitive nature of those participating at Phatback, players said they were most concerned with fair play and respect for the game. One incident substantiated that.

After a match between Iron and Quantico, a dispute arose between the referee and an Iron player about whether the final result was a tie. As soon as a player from Quantico made it to the sideline to listen to the heated discussion, he quickly quelled any controversy by saying he had missed a kick. Thus his team had lost, and Iron had won.

"It's like a big family," Clapp said of the admiration rugby players have for one another. "And if some guy here needed a place to stay tonight, he'd have one."