From the Issue: Black and Light Blue

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The April issue of the Blue and White is now on a newsstand or under a dorm room door near you! If you can’t get out to pick one up now, here is another preview: contributor Sam Schube enlists in the men’s rugby team.

“Do not drop the fucking ball!” yelled coach Sean Horan. “That is our motto. Do not drop the fucking ball!”

Coach Horan’s barked command leaves the members of the Columbia men’s club rugby team with limited options: one can move the ball by running with it, kicking it, or passing it laterally or backwards to a teammate. The forward pass, that civilizing innovation of American football, is forbidden (the glossary after the jump may shed a little light on the game’s Brittanic terminology). Each side has 15 players of varying sizes and speeds, all working to move the ball to the in-goal area. After this point, mechanical laws fail to explain their motion, though it typically involves large, moving piles of large, moving men. 

Large men seem to gravitate naturally towards the rugby team. The roster includes several ex-football players, a few all-around athletes, and a veteran whose high school happened to offer the sport. Coach Horan is a lifelong rugby devotee and tries

his best to convey his savvy with highlights reels and whiteboards, but for the most part, his team’s acumen extends not far beyond the basics.

A Rugby Glossary

Drop Kick: A player drops the ball for a single bounce before kicking it toward the goalpost. If the goalpost is hit, the team earns three points.

Maul: A player holding a ball is swarmed—but not tackled—by

players from the opposing team.

Ruck: A swarm of players converging on a ball in an attempt to secure it.

Scrum: Much like football’s line of scrimmage, this is the faceoff formation of players from the two rugby teams. The ball is rolled between the lines of opposing players as a hooker tries to pass the ball with his feet to the back row of his team. The ball is then considered in play.

Sin Bin: The penalty box behind the goal area where offending players are sent by referees. The team then continues with a reduced number of players until the penalty is complete.

Try: The basic unit of scoring in rugby. Worth five points, a try is earned when one team touches down the rugby ball in the opposing team’s in-goal area.

Try Line: The dividing border that separates the field from a team’s in-goal area.

The rugby team is very welcoming, which it advertises with flyers scattered around campus. No tryouts or auditions are required; “interested ruggers,” no matter how green, need only attend an informational session on a well-air conditioned squash court in Dodge to join up. With my reasonable high-school sports resume, I didn’t feel out of

place stopping by.

At the initial summit meeting, prospective players have a chance to meet team members, and vice versa. Not knowing quite what to say when I stood to introduce myself, I piped up by telling everyone that I was there to write an article about being on the

team. The players shot a few quizzical looks my way, and an awkward silence fell.

“…But I fully expect to get my ass kicked, too!” I sputtered. They hooted in approval. Most of the team members can be described as “stocky.” This spring’s recruits were welcomed by the solid-looking Ben Cheslak, who has a reputation as both curmudgeonly and impish, which he has earned both from the indeterminate duration of his senior standing and from his habit of hiding the ball underneath his shirt whenever it goes out of bounds during practice. “I was here before all of you fucks and I’ll be here after you leave,” he announced, by way of introduction. A balding, hard-living Teacher’s College student known as Farmer John is also short and stout, his thickness accentuated by orange suspenders. Olof Matti, the team’s resident Swede and a former competitive downhill skier, calls himself Liten Pansarvagn, or “the little tank.” Zach Bull, like a character from a bad first novel, boasts of a branding iron tattoo on his chest.

Cheslak, Farmer John, Pansarvagn and the rest of the team practice twice a week at the Baker Field Athletic Complex, located on the 218th Street wind tunnel created by the adjacent Hudson and East Rivers. Gusts buffet the players as they perform shuttle sprints and suicides three times a week, two hours at a time. Practices are typically violent, intemperate, and, at least for Saturday’s 10:30 a.m. session, populated by the hung-over. There’s no locker room—players throw on sweats or shorts on the sidelines—but the locker room culture lives on in O’Connell’s, the sweaty dive just off-campus, a favorite among fraternity brothers and the women who love them.

The rugby team wears its love for O’Connell’s on its sleeve; the bar is the team’s official sponsor, so their uniforms sport the O’Connell’s shamrock. It’s a relatively glamorous patronage, at least compared to the Columbia Business School rugby team’s Bear Stearns-logoed silks. The rugby boys decamp to O’Connell’s regularly, often heading straight from Baker Field to the bar. O’Connell’s teems with masculinity and the celebration thereof; when the team isn’t racing each other in beer-drinking relay races, the players purchase pints for one another and regale the bar with bawdy, rugby-themed ditties. “Jesus can’t play rugby ’cause his best friend got him hammered” is one of the less offensive lines of a traditional six-verse doggerel.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these impromptu recitals are often conducted to the chagrin of O’Connell’s less sportsmanlike patrons, including the occasional squad of New York City police. They once misinterpreted Farmer John’s naturally menacing expression as a genuine threat, and, believing (correctly) that he carried drugs on his person, searched him.

The team’s hard-drinking, hard-partying habits don’t take a vacation for spring break—the team just takes them on the road. Each March, they travel for a week, on an alumni-subsidized junket, in some far-off, exotic locale, where they punish their livers and play international teams. The night before their annual “Tour,” the team prepared for its five hour flight by pounding pints until 4:15 a.m., when their bus was scheduled to depart for the airport. Details from the Trinidad expedition are scant, as the team has seized upon the dictum, “What happens in Trinidad, stays in Trinidad.” Except what comes back to America—like one player’s nickname of “Bukkake”, an ancient Japanese form of psychosexual torture—for better or for worse, remains in America.

These close-knit bonds among the players are steeped in testosterone. They partake in stereotypically manly barroom antics and share a remarkably high tolerance for Bud Light. But the team’s masculinity is also clear in its players’ attitudes toward injury. Bones are broken and ligaments sprain in nearly every match, but pads are an after-thought, at best. “Well, when you’ve got to get down and get someone’s knee in your soft face, you wish you wore a helmet, I guess,” observes team captain Phil Kemp, a kindhearted giant who speaks with a slight lisp. When injury does visit the team during a match—as this Blue and White reporter discovered after breaking his collarbone on a goalpost collision—sidelined ruggers only rage at the loss of valuable playing time. For physical wounds, there’s always O’Connell’s—or a batch of Farmer John’s pot brownies, which were given to your correspondent—to help numb the pain.

– Illustration by Sonia Tycko


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  2. why  

    does no one ever pay any attention to the women's rugby team?

  3. nope  

    Sorry but you'll be lucky to find people who care about men's rugby, so women's rugby doesn't have a chance. I like rugby tho.

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