I just came back from my first rugby game. My nephew Sean plays for the Eagles, the Gonzaga High School team, and I’m sad and sorry to say that I’d never seen him play before. Today Gonzaga played the Maryland Exiles for the Potomac Rugby Union’s Division 1 Finals. I say that with authority, and yet don’t really know what it means.
Anyhow, for once I didn’t have anything planned, and off I went to George Mason University. It was beautiful outside; sunny and pleasantly cool. I pulled up at the designated field, parked and stood on the sidelines squinting, trying to figure out which side was which. Like a dummy, I had forgotten that Gonzaga’s school color is purple, and it wasn’t until a kid passed me wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed “GOD IS PURPLE” that I realized my error. The teams were taking the field and I squinted at them for a while, until my eye was caught by a tall kid with a mop of curly hair. Number 16 – Sean. Damn, he’s gotten tall, I thought. When did that happen? That’s Sean above. Yes, he’s a good-looking kid, too.
Now that I knew to go where the purple people were, I wandered over to that side. I eventually picked out my sister-in-law, Barbara, togged out from head to foot in a very becoming lilac outfit and wringing her hands with anxiety. She confessed that she was probably more anxious than Sean – rugby is a rough game, and Sean cracked his collarbone a while back, playing. My brother John was at the sidelines, pacing (but not in purple). He came over and we chatted for a bit, and then suddenly and without ceremony, the game was on.
Rugby is kind of like football, only not. There’s a goal at either end of the field and two teams of 15. There’s no separate team for offensive and defense – the same kids play all the time, which has got to be exhausting since there are no time-outs unless someone’s injured. The play is almost constant, with a lot of running and hitting and slamming into each other. John was kind enough to stand next to me and explain some of the finer points of the game. Our conversation went something like this:
ME: What is a scrum?
JOHN: That’s when the two teams bunch up in opposition GO SEAN GO GET IT GOOD PASS and they put the ball C’MON SUPPORT SUPPORT SUPPORT in the middle and the team hooker tries to hook it out with his foot and get it into play GET IT GET IT GET IT.
ME: Is that what they’re doing now?
JOHN: No, that’s a ruck, which is kind of NO NO NO SUPPORT SUPPORT like a scrum only you form a scrum and a ruck just happens.
ME: When they GO SEAN GO all pile onto each other, that’s a ruck?
JOHN: That’s a ruck. YEAH!!! (applause)
ME: What just happened?
Actually, I picked up a good bit about the game, mostly that these kids are working themselves to death and that rugby is really a team sport – not a place for showboaters at all. Sean would normally not be playing but one of the regular team dislocated his shoulder at the last game, so Sean got to play the whole game. He acquitted himself well (“stepped up,” as the coach put it post-game). Watching these kids hurl themselves at each other, without the benefit of padding or helmets, you would expect there to be a lot more injuries and a lot of fights, but the game was both vigorous and as gentlemanly as it could be under the circumstances. The Exiles scored first, but then Gonzaga grabbed a fat lead and held onto it through the rest of the game. I chose a vantage point from on top of the small bleachers, but most of the Gonzaga fans ran up and down the sidelines with their team. At one point the action moved to the far corner and I watched in amazement as about a hundred purple-clad fans rumbled down the sidelines to watch, practically on top of the players as they rucked and mauled.
Almost as abruptly as it began, the game was over and Gonzaga had won. I watched as Sean and his teammates panted and sucked down water. Most of them are going to prom tonight; can you believe it? Next Sunday they’ll go to the MARFU playoffs (whatever that means), and if they win there, they’ll go to the National High School Championships. Truth be told, I’d kind of like to see that. I may drive up to Wilmington with Barbara next Sunday for the MARFU playoffs, rehearsal schedule permitting. Go, you Eagles. Go, Sean, go.