You may have seen the dashing members of Columbia’s Rugby Football Club walking around campus and wondered: Who are these men? Can I play? Can I watch? What’s a scrum? Why do they always pass the ball backwards? Is it just football without pads? Rugby fan Tamsin Pargiter sat down with president Daniel Martinez, SEAS ’15, and board member Justin D’Agostino, CC ’14, to find out.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.
Bwog: Why did you choose to play rugby rather than American football?
Justin: I started playing back in high school; I told [my mom] “you know, it’s like soccer.” The first game she came to, she covered her eyes the entire time.
Danny: I played football in high school, and I didn’t even touch a rugby ball until I got here. I wanted to do some sort of club sport and this seemed like the most fun, and it hasn’t disappointed me yet.
Bwog: Do you have an intimidation dance like the Haka?
Justin: No, I think the most intimidating part about us is that we’re easily the most handsome team. Whenever the other team looks across the field, it’s just a group of 15 models staring back at them. We leave with their girlfriends and mothers…
Danny:…the bus gets crowded on the way back.
Bwog: “Football [soccer] is a gentleman’s sport played by hooligans. Rugby is a hooligan’s sport played by gentlemen.” Discuss.
Danny: That’s definitely true.
Justin: We’re gentlemen on and off the pitch, and rugby is a bit of a hooligan’s sport –it’s such a high intensity sport, it’s basically a battle out there. You’re throwing your body at another guy as fast as you can to see who can score the ball. The beauty of the sport is the camaraderie that comes along with it, and it’s not just within your own team, it’s between teams. There’s a mutual respect for everyone who plays the sport…it’s a very unique atmosphere, it’s not something you usually find in American sports.
Danny: Even within the team itself the level of camaraderie is just a lot more than within any other sport.
Justin: There’s a fraternal aspect to it…we hear sometimes that we’re closer than most groups that are not sports. Everybody is your brother. The support network that is on the team is ridiculous…and that comes both from having somebody there emotionally for homework, or for job connections after college.
Danny: Yeah it especially pays off in the future, because that level of camaraderie remains in alumni, and we have really strong connections with them.
Justin: Especially because of our status as a club sport, we don’t get as much recognition and assistance from the athletic department, and we owe a lot of how we operate to our alumni.
Bwog: When you are in a scrum, is butt grabbing an unfortunate necessity or a valuable bonding opportunity?
Danny: Definitely valuable. It’s not just butt grabbing…there’s a lot of things but we’ll use the umbrella term butt grabbing…there’s a lot of stuff that goes on.
Justin: Agreed, definitely valuable. Butt grabbing doesn’t just happen in the scrum either, could happen on the way to class, in the shower, whatever the moment calls for.
Bwog: Do you find it weird when American football players pass the ball forwards?
Justin: No…but we do find it weird when guys who are new to the team pass the ball forward, after we specifically tell them not to.
Justin: It’s a huge learning curve at first, even though it’s a really simple sport and easy to pick up. All you really need to play out there is a pair of shorts and a ball. I think probably the hardest thing for everybody is learning how to tackle properly. There’s this common misconception that because we don’t have any pads it’s a really dangerous and high injury sport, which simply isn’t true. It’s a very nuanced sport and technique is paramount in everything: when you make a tackle you’re not just throwing your head at somebody’s legs and hoping that you take them down. You have to make sure you set your back right, you get the shoulder in there, you wrap them and bring them down. It’s a safety thing.
Danny: Statistically it’s a safer sport than football or even soccer.
Bwog: So do you feel foolish or brave on the pitch?
Justin: We’re definitely idiots. You absolutely have to be an idiot to play a contact sport. But, we’re not going to throw you out there unless you have a concept of how to play well and not get yourself killed. The bravest people are those guys who practice four times a week, come to our fitness sessions…those are the guys who are considered more brave than the guys who are willing to get out there and throw their heads into contact.
Bwog: What are your expectations for this season?
Danny: Our Ivy season is in the fall, and because we unfortunately didn’t make it to playoffs, this is really a development season. We’re a really young team right now, mainly sophomores and freshmen with a handful of juniors.
Justin: We’re definitely a transition team. It’s really leaps and bounds from where we were last year, it’s very impressive. What’s beautiful is that a lot of our starters are sophomores and even freshmen, and these are guys –some who have played before and some who haven’t- who are really excellent athletes who have shown a lot of dedication to get themselves up to speed to play at such a high level. Longevity is really what’s important here, and our future looks very bright.
Bwog: Are you following the 6 Nations? Do you have a favorite team?
Justin: Oh yeah, we follow it. Well…I’m Italian, so I’m going to say Ireland is my favorite team. There’s not much hope for me there. 6 Nations is playing out pretty interestingly.
Bwog: How do you think sevens is changing the face of rugby?
Danny: As a team we haven’t shifted over to a big sevens program yet, but in general they Ivy League is really trying to push sevens, in the future there will probably be two or three sevens tournaments just for the Ivy League in the fall.
Justin: Sevens is definitely the future of American rugby. It’s a lot more fast paced and high scoring… it’s a lot of fun. It’s more applicable to the American market just because, you know, we have the memory spans of goldfish. The Ivy League is currently being represented by Dartmouth, but we’re hoping to get ourselves there soon.
Bwog: Do you think that sevens being introduced in the 2016 Olympics will affect the game’s popularity (or lack thereof) in the US?
Justin: Definitely. I remember growing up and hearing people be like “Soccer? What?” but just in the past few years American’s passion for soccer has grown. So I hope that out of pure American patriotism, Rugby will also grow.
Danny: We even did something a few years ago with PlayRugbyUSA, a youth outreach program in the city, where we went to local middle schools and showed them how to play. It’s a great sport, not just for staying in shape, but also for making connections. It’s easily the best decision I’ve made at Columbia.
Justin: (nodding in agreement with Danny) As a freshman RA in Carman, I’ve successfully coerced all the little freshmen in their first week to play rugby.
Bwog: Any last words on the Columbia Rugby Club?
Justin: Come to games! We have a really big game right before Bacchanal, April 12th, against Yale, at Baker. We’ll be flyering and walking around shirtless to get everyone’s attention. There will probably be free shirts, free food, and definitely some free men. There’s lots of short shorts. Make sure that gets printed, that last bit. Lots of legs.
If you want to see lots of legs, the Rugby Club has a game today at 2 pm in Baker Field against Old Blue. Show your support and appreciation.