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Columbia’s rugby players take pride in skinned knees and broken noses

Columbia University, Rugby

The Columbia University campus.

Peter Spiro

Columbia’s Rugby players take pride in skinned knees and broken noses I wouldn’t play Rugby if there was no contact,” says Mark Snowise, captain of the Columbia University Rugby Club. A furious eighty-minute game, it is not a sport for the faint of heart. Rugby demands the stamina of soccer and the aggressiveness of football, without the benefit of helmets, pads, timeouts or substitutions. Broken noses, ripped ears and deep gashes are common. “Our T-shirts say it’s THE ART OF ELEGANT VIOLENCE,” says Snowise. To Drew Fautley, the twenty-seven-year-old coach of Columbia, which finished its fall season 3-4, rugby is demanding but satisfying: “You play rugby, and at the end of the day, you feel you’ve accomplished something.”

Legend has it that the sport got rolling in 1823 in Rugby, England, when a soccer player named William Webb Ellis (“with a fine disregard for the rules,” according to a monument at Rugby School) picked up the ball and ran with it. While rugby has always been one of England’s favorite sports, its popularity in the United States has waxed and waned. The first recorded contest was at Harvard in 1874, and the sport has been a fixture in the Ivy League ever since. (Columbia’s Fautley, in fact, began his coaching career at Yale.) In the Twenties, an American team composed of Californians generated some excitement by winning the gold medal in successive Olympiads in 1920 and 1924, the last year rugby was included in the games.

Rugby began to regain popularity in the Sixties, embraced by college students because it was less commercial and rule-bound than more established sports. Today rugby is played in more than 100 countries, from China to Czechoslovakia. Although there is still no professional league in the United States, there are more than 1300 clubs. The Eagles – an all-star amateur men’s team – will represent this country at the second World Cup, scheduled for October in Europe.

“Everyone hears rugby and thinks, ‘All you guys do is run around and bash each other,’ but it’s a lot more organized than that,” says Snowise, a senior from South Africa, who plays flyhalf. Indeed, rugby is a blend of soccer and football, which it fathered. Fifteen players constitute an amateur team (called rugby union). The game is played with a white ball, shaped like a bloated football, for two 40-minute halves with only one 5-minute half-time break. Passing must be lateral or backward; unlike football, when the ball hits the ground it is not out of play – both teams fight for possession. Perhaps the most familiar feature of rugby, aside from the ever-popular rugby shirt, is the scrum, wherein eight players from each team lock together in what looks like football’s huddle and try to push themselves over the ball, placed by an official beneath them. A rugby touchdown, worth four points, is called a try. A conversion, similar to football’s, is worth two points. A three-point goal kicked from the field can be attempted as a result of a major penalty. The score of the winning team in a rugby game is usually less than twenty points.

Who plays rugby? More than 150,000 people in the United States, according to Rugby magazine, most of whom are college-educated men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four. Women play in much smaller numbers: The United States of America Rugby Football Union (USARFU) reports only 162 women’s clubs. Rugby players expect little exposure – ESPN doesn’t televise any games – and no money. (Some onetime players have found fame off the rugby field, however: Senator Ted Kennedy, for example, scrummaged at Harvard, and Karol Wojtyla, better known as John Paul II, played for Poland before pursuing a gentler vocation.) Until recently the USARFU was run entirely by volunteers.

Mark Bures, a Columbia senior from Irvine, California, whose rugby position is hooker, hadn’t heard much about rugby until he got to college. “It’s not a varsity sport,” he says, “so you play only for yourself and your team and not really for big fans or in a big stadium.” Perhaps the sport’s underdog status lends to the team’s strong sense of camaraderie. The Columbia club goes to 3 two-and-a-half-hour practices a week, plays every Saturday in the spring and fall and goes out after games with rival teams to celebrate. “In a lot of ways it was like stepping into a different culture,” says Bures, who started playing as a freshman. “Once I was there, I was hooked.”

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