The light, quick, 22-year-old David Buckingham is tackled by a man twice his size, but not before he tosses the ball he's carrying to a teammate and watches him sprint ahead to score in the end zone. Later, Jim Hotard, a 44-year-old father of eight, launches himself at an opponent's charging legs and tries to rip the big, oblong ball from his hands while they skid together across the grass in a tangle of cleats.
And when it's all over, the home team will make sure their erstwhile enemies get a good lunch and a few drinks to wash it all down.
Welcome to the brusque, bruising, brotherly world of rugby in New Orleans. There are hundreds of people involved in the sport in the metro area, from high school students to retired players old enough to introduce their grandchildren to the game. They participate in a subculture rich with its own traditions, salty lingo and local history, but one that has kept a very low profile. Home games, held at Gretna City Park, are sparsely attended and even locals who religiously follow the sport's overseas professional leagues are often surprised to learn that New Orleans has a rugby club at all.
That is beginning to change, however, thanks to accomplishments on the field that are earning New Orleans national attention in rugby circles and the maturation of a robust local network of boosters intent on developing the sport in their community.
The New Orleans Rugby Football Club, the local men's club, went undefeated in its regular season this spring. This weekend, May 17-18, the team travels to Austin, Texas, for the Sweet Sixteen round of the national rugby playoffs. The local team is now ranked No. 13 in the nation and is two victories away from making the national finals.
"This is arguably the best rugby team New Orleans has produced," says Jerry Malina, head coach of the men's club, which was formed in 1973.
New Orleans has seen an influx of new players, many with significant rugby experience who were lured to the area by post-Katrina job opportunities. Some other players are relatively new to the sport, but say they found a team eager to bring in fresh recruits.
"What really appealed to me was this group of guys who are focused on spreading the sport of rugby, so they're willing to take raw players and cultivate them," says Matt Oertling, who played his first rugby game in 2005 and is now part of the team's starting line-up. "This is something I foresee myself doing now for a long time."
ANOTHER FACTOR, AND ONE THAT MALINA AND OTHERS SAY IS fundamental to the future of the sport here, is the burgeoning high school rugby scene in the metro area. These programs have only been officially recognized since 2000, when the first Louisiana rugby high school championship was held, but they have already begun to turn out experienced rugby players who are feeding back into the men's club after college.
Earlier this month, teams from both Archbishop Rummel and Jesuit high schools placed first in different divisions of the USA Rugby South Regional Tournament while Brother Martin High School finished fourth. Jesuit and Rummel both advance to the national high school championship in Pittsburgh, which begins May 30.
An all-star team composed of Louisiana players under the age of 19 won America's premier tournament for such teams in 2006 and 2007. Two players from those local teams Eric West and Adam Ducoing were selected to the 25-man roster of the USA Eagles Under-20 team, which represents the nation in competition against teams from around the world.
The local women's rugby team, the New Orleans Halfmoons, is again recruiting players after a Katrina-forced hiatus, and several local universities field men's and women's rugby teams as well. The Vieux Garcons, or the local "old boys" team for players over age 35, debuted a new tournament this spring that drew teams from as far as New Jersey. For two days, teams composed of men well into middle age tackled, dove, stiff-armed and charged their way across the Gretna pitch, as the rugby playing field is known.
Rugby club leaders eventually hope to create a pre-high school youth league to introduce the sport to more children and families earlier and they are also interested in helping form a charter school to serve low-income families with rugby as a central athletic program.
"It's a low-cost sport with a big impact that gives kids a good way to work out their aggression," says Tim Falcon, a Marrero attorney and coach for the Archbishop Shaw High School rugby team. "The most fulfilling part is you see kids who aren't into football or they've been cut from the team and you've given them the gift of rugby, where they might excel and they have a chance to wear their school's colors and experience all the good things that sports do for young people."
Others compare the development of rugby in American to the growth of soccer. Kevin Kern, team captain for the men's club and a coach for the Rummel high school team, says he now sees family traditions taking hold, as the sons of rugby players come out for his team and their younger brothers follow in their footsteps.
"Plus, there's a magnetism to the sport that comes from doing something different, and that strikes a chord with a lot of people, especially teenagers," says Kern. "It appeals to that rebellious streak. After all, the whole sport of rugby came about because of a rebel."
THE CREATION STORY OF RUGBY, PERHAPS APOCRYPHAL, HOLDS THAT in 1823 a student at the Rugby School in England named William Webb Ellis decided to pick up the ball during a soccer match and run with it. Thus was born the game that would eventually spawn American football, where vestigial evidence of its heritage still appears in otherwise quizzical terms like "line of scrimmage" (from the line of "scrummage," or "scrum," in rugby) and "touchdown" (from the rule that rugby players must actually touch the ball down in the opponent's end zone to score).
Football evolved soaring downfield passes, specialized offensive and defensive positions and a system of downs to stop play. Rugby remains a game of continuous play in which the team with the ball tries to run around or fight through defenders to score in the end zone, or "try zone" as it's called in the sport. Players can pass the ball, but only to teammates behind them. Teams can also kick the ball downfield, essentially punting the ball to get space between the opponent and their own try zone.
A tackle doesn't stop play, but rather signals the beginning of a battle between the two teams to establish possession of the ball. If the referee spots a rule infraction or the ball goes out of bounds, one of the ways the game is restarted is through the scrum. This distinctive formation involves eight players from each side binding on to each other and trying to drive the opposing mass of eight men off the ball. Each team fields 15 players total, and they must handle both offensive and defensive roles as the ball changes sides through the 80-minute match. Athletes of all sizes can excel on a rugby team, with light, fast players and men of 300 pounds or more sharing the pitch.
"In football, you have your job to do, you're set in your position and it has it's own rules," says Matt Upton, a Texas native who was recruited for rugby by the University of Oklahoma and moved to New Orleans to play with the local club after graduating last year. "Rugby is different, because every player can help his team every minute of the game, and that makes it more dynamic."
While football added helmets and an elaborate wardrobe of padding, rugby remains a contact sport with very little protective gear allowed. While this helps account for rugby's reputation for hard knocks, it also explains why the sport is so portable.
Rugby players know they can find a game or at least a practice session and a network of fellow enthusiasts in any community in the world that has a rugby club. With American youth and high school programs still a new phenomenon, rugby teams across the nation put a premium on experienced players. In New Orleans, players and coaches receive no money for participation but the club regularly taps its social network to assist promising talent interested in moving here especially foreigners with deep rugby experience.
"I came to New Orleans without knowing anyone, but my coach back home had a few contacts," says David Thorburn, a 21-year-old player who moved here from Scotland earlier this year. "He sent an e-mail to the New Orleans team asking if they would host me. They picked me up at the airport and I was at practice right after that."
Players and coaches say they relish the intense competition and physicality of rugby, but there is also a social civility that is as deeply ingrained in the sport as tackles and scrums.
"Rugby is definitely a community sport," says New Orleans rugby player Seyi Aiyegbusi, a native of Nigeria who grew up playing rugby in England.
"Everywhere you go in the world where they play rugby, you hear people talk about the rugby community, and it's true," he says. "People support each other because they have this game in common and the culture that comes with it."
That culture is passed on and fostered not just on the rugby pitch, but also at the post-game parties that home teams everywhere host for their opponents. Locally, these parties start at the Rugby Pub, a Gretna tavern within limping distance of the pitch where the ceiling is hung with the flags of rugby-playing nations and the bar is adorned with game balls from tournaments past. Each team presents MVP honors to their recent adversaries and mud-splattered players bellow songs to each other, a mix of bawdy numbers and antique pub ballads. Stories are swapped, friends are made and further links are forged in the connection the players share between teams, across the region and around the world.
"In most sports these days, that kind of camaraderie between competitors is gone," says Malina. "In rugby, you and I could have our hands on each other's throats, ready to pound on each other, and then the whistle blows and we shake hands and go have a beer together. No animosity comes with you off the pitch, and when you're hosting other teams, it really is about hospitality." In Memoriam,
William Moss William J. Moss, the pianist better known as Billy Ding, died last Sunday. He was 42. Moss was walking between Vaughan's Lounge and BJ's Lounge, two downtown taverns where he often played music and visited with neighbors, when he and a friend were struck by a vehicle. Moss died at the scene from internal injuries. His friend was hospitalized.
Moss was the longtime proprietor of French Quarter Bicycles on Dumaine Street (now closed) and a talented boogie-woogie pianist with a dedicated local following. He played frequently with his band, the Hot Wings, on Frenchmen Street and in the Bywater.
A funeral was scheduled for Monday, May 12, collowed by a a second line through the French Quarter.
- New Orleans rugby player David Buckingham offloads the rugby ball to a teammate running in support a split second before a defending player from regional rival Atlanta tackles him. Athletes of all sizes can excel on a rugby team, with light, fast players and hulking men of 300 pounds or more sharing the field.
- New Orleans rugby player Seth Magden (center, with ball) breaks off from the scrum in a game against Mobile earlier this season. New Orleans went undefeated in its league this season and is the champion of its Deep South division.
- New Orleans rugby player Brent Dempster drives the ball through opponents in a recent playoff game. In rugby, hard tackles are followed by ferocious efforts to retain the ball or else take it away from the opposition. The action usually stops only if the referee spots a rule infraction, the ball goes out of bounds or a team scores.
- The "pack' of the New Orleans rugby team engages competitors from Charleston, S.C. in a scrum. Used to restart the game after an error, scrums involve eight players from each side binding on to each other and trying to drive the opposing eight men off the ball.