Rugby season is underway! The 2021 fall season for the Capital Rugby Union kicked off in September after a pandemic pause in 2020. The highlight of the season, which sees the area’s hundreds of players in four divisions of amateur men’s, women’s, and college teams—nearly 100 squads—going head-to-head until mid-November, is the first-ever local “test” match, a game between two nations’ all-star teams. That will have the United States Eagles facing off against New Zealand’s fabled All Blacks.
Wow! When’s that happening? The inaugural 1874 Cup takes place October 23 at FedExField. Northern Virginia’s own Old Glory DC, the local Major League Rugby team that plays its home games in Leesburg, is partnering with USA Rugby to host. It is hoped that the Cup, which marks the year the first rugby match was played in the U.S. (McGill University and Harvard University slugged it out in a scoreless tie), will be an annual event.
Are the All Blacks really, uh, all Black players? No. While many on the historically top-ranked national team are non-white, the team gets its name from the black jerseys, shorts, and knee socks the players wear.
So who are these Eagles? USA Rugby, the national governing body, puts together a national all-star team to play other nations’ national teams.
We watched an Old Glory DC match on TV but couldn’t figure it out. It’s easy once you know. Fifteen players from each team attempt to cross a goal line 110 yards away without passing the ball forward. If you drop it or throw it forward, the other team gets to roll the ball into the middle of the scrummage—eight players from each side bind together to push the other team off the ball.
How do players score points? When a player crosses the goal line and touches the ball down (very important), they get 5 points and their kicker gets to kick for 2 more points based on where the ball was touched down. The easiest kick is from a touchdown under the posts. Players can also kick from the point of a penalty and score 3 points.
Penalties? You mean there are rules? No! There are no “rules.” They are called the “laws of the game,” and there aren’t a lot of them: Let go of the player once they are tackled. The tackled player must let go of the ball when they hit the ground. Stay on your side of the ruck (the action after the tackle). Don’t make contact of any kind above the shoulders. Be sure to use your arms to “wrap up” a tackle (no knocking down with shoulders). No blocking. Be nice.
Really? Yes, really. In the law book, it says a player may do nothing contrary to “the spirit of the game.”
What’s with the lifting of players? When the ball goes into touch (out of bounds), the team that didn’t put it out gets to throw it down the middle of two parallel lines of players, some of whom are boosted sky high by teammates. Fun!
Do women play rugby? Lots of them! In fact, the Northern Virginia Women’s Rugby Club is the standing Division 1 National Champion; they took the trophy in 2019 and have yet to give it up. They also boast a Division 3 team. The Vienna-based squad has been manhandling (woman-handling?) opponents in the mid-Atlantic at a high level since 1982.
These people are crazy. Why aren’t they wearing helmets? Helmets and padding turn into weaponry, as you’ve seen in other sports. The players wouldn’t have it any other way. When the game is over, there are no hard feelings for the black eye, the bruised ribs, the victory or the defeat.
Do the players ever want to fight each other afterward? The passion they have for the game, they take into the after-party. They towel off and change into a clean rugby shirt and head for the team’s pub, in muddy shorts and knee socks. And a player finds himself at the bar, next to the guy who just spent 80 minutes trying to destroy him, the blood on his left eyebrow just now coagulating—he’s handing over a frothy pint and lifting his own for a congratulatory tap. They’ll see each other again in a few short weeks, back on the battlefield. But for now, it’s time for a beer and a song.