Saturday, January 29, 2022 Jan 29, 2022
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Sports

That Time I Joined a Rugby Team

I’m not a big guy. Maybe I should have been more careful. But where’s the fun in that?
By  |
rugby
Peter Horjus

An Adonis-looking man gently pitches an oblong ball underhanded to a guy who is looking after the “rookies,” those of us who have just started playing rugby. We’re standing in three lines across the humid pitch of Lake Highlands Park, and we’re learning how to spin the ball and keep our spacing. We need to work toward open areas, draw in defenders, then look to pass.

“That’s all rugby is,” he says. “Rugby is just passing.”

By the end of the summer, though, I will find myself standing in a roughly constructed rugby pitch in Newport Pass Beach, just south of Corpus Christi. I’ll be covered in a paste of sand and sweat, hands on my hips, as I take in deep gulps of ocean air to lower my heart rate. My thigh will be wrapped for a contusion that has turned the act of walking into hobbling, and two fingers of my right hand will be taped together because the middle phalanx of my pinkie has fractured end to end.

Passing, he means, is where it starts.

If you wake up one day and decide you have a burning desire to play rugby for one of the biggest clubs in the country, it’s shockingly easy. You fill out a player interest form, wait to be added to the Dallas Rugby email list, and pay your dues. It’s cheaper than yoga or even the Y.

“You’re going to do what?” my girlfriend said. We were sitting in front of the TV when she turned to me and said, “Repeat that?” Rugby. “Like the big guys hitting and everything?” Right, I said. But it’s sevens, so half the players of a normal 15s squad. It’s much more spread out. A lot more running. Think flag football but with tackling. “Don’t people get hurt playing that?”

She turned back to the TV. “OK. If that’s what you want.” She paused, smiled. “I bet the players are pretty cute.”

At 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds, I’m not the prototypical rugby player. I am, in fact, a triathloner. I can run and bike and swim at a pretty good pace, but I’m also 36 years old, so I’m not as fast as I used to be. When I sit, I occasionally groan. When I walk through the airport, I look longingly at the neck pillows. My body knows what’s good for it; my brain, however, has never figured that out.

Despite my best efforts to fit in, I show up to my first rugby practice in shorts that are noticeably wrong. Guys the size of refrigerators are standing around, chatting and joking as they lace up their boots, their thighs bulging beneath actual rugby shorts. A group of them trot onto the field and begin slinging the ball in a circle. I should be worried that I’ve never thrown a rugby ball before. I should be worried that a man twice my size will come sprinting at me without pads on, and that when we assemble for a ruck or a scrum, I will be standing motionless with confusion. But I’m not. I’m fixated on my running shorts.

We begin practice with conditioning, this hypertorqued mutation between CrossFit and Army basic. While we start in a circle, we satellite into a porous mass as guys bear-crawl in front of the bleachers between sets of wind-sprint burpees. I’ve been through every type of workout that baseball and basketball and football can offer, but I’ve never done something like this. The closest I’ve come is sparring with a friend who trains at an MMA gym. I was so gassed and beaten from the furious strikes and counterstrikes that by the time he took me to the ground to jujitsu me to death, I welcomed it.

I look over and see the guy next to me has a Canterbury tattoo on his thigh. It’s akin to having a Nike Swoosh or Louisville Slugger tattoo, only for rugby products based in one of rugby’s meccas: New Zealand. I wonder how many of these guys have been playing since they were 6 or 8 or 10, their bodies switching to autopilot as they see a latticework of defenders before them—a goosestep here, a skip pass there. I’m easily out of my depth.

A few weeks into it, “big rugby guy” becomes one of my girlfriend’s jokes. She doesn’t roll her eyes when she says it, but she draws out the “big,” so that “biiiig rugby guy” becomes a type of cheeky, verbal eye roll. According to her, I’m also a “biiiig Subaru guy.”

I start talking about it a lot. Conversations with acquaintances tend to angle toward rugby, and it’s not entirely my fault. People seem interested in it. Rugby, it turns out, is a vaguely intriguing sport. It’s brutal. Foreign. Every now and then, my girlfriend’s friends ask when the next match is, when they can “check out these rugby guys.” But I repeatedly shrug. The third squad doesn’t see much game time. Others are just curious as to why a 36-year-old would pick up rugby in the first place. Why not something more leisurely, like cycling? Or swimming? These are people who don’t know me well. Clearly people who don’t cycle or swim, either.

My free time morphs into rugby-​obsessed: I now watch ungodly hours of rugby on Peacock Premium, the NBC streaming service that has cornered the rugby market. Statistically, I have to be one of the few people who’s subscribed for the rugby content alone.

One Sunday, I drive to Dick’s off 75 to purchase a ball, and I ask three employees before they can find one. There are only two balls in the store, and it’s nearly impossible to track them down.

The following Saturday, I find myself at the park practicing my passes with a teammate. Once he leaves, I stay another hour to kick the ball downfield and chase after it like I’m in a game. At times, it feels like the most fun I’ve had since I was 12. At others, I have to stop and stretch because my hamstring feels like it’s going to explode.

Tuesday and Thursday nights fall into a rhythm of militant conditioning followed by more and more freedom for the rookies. The club’s A-squad is winning tournament after tournament and is scheduled to play at nationals by mid-August. The third squad is building to our tournament in Corpus Christi. During one intense conditioning session, our fitness coach, Lynn, over techno workout beats blaring from her portable speaker, starts screaming things like “You think Oceanside doesn’t do this? You think Belmont Shore is gonna show up out of shape?” I have no idea who the hell Oceanside or Belmont Shore are, but I’m ready to beat their asses.

We break into a scrimmage, and suddenly the A-squad is lined up across from us—the third squad, the guys who are just learning to “pass.” The guy across from me is 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, and it’s all top-down muscle. If you walked into a grocery store and saw him, you’d stare. He has played professionally and camped with the Olympic squad. He played linebacker at OSU. Alex is his name, and it will be my job to keep tabs on him.

I drive straight to my girlfriend’s from practice, and when she opens the door, she says, “Oh, my god! What happened?” I’ve never seen her eyes this wide before. Her concern deepens my concern, though I don’t know how concerned that should be. “Do you know your ear is bleeding?” Yes, I say, but it’s just external.

The following day, the X-ray will confirm a broken finger. And the CT scan will come back negative. “What were you doing?” the doctor will ask, gently lifting my ear until I wince. Rugby, I’ll say. “Well, that figures.”

Two weeks after my first rugby tournament, in Corpus (we finished fourth out of 16), our A-squad faces off against the best club teams across the country—and we finish, disastrously, in last place. But the tournament showcases some of the best talent in the country, and just making it is an accomplishment. Nationals will showcase future USA squad players, as well as Eric Naposki, the Dallas Jackals’ first overall pick in the Major League Rugby draft. The UCLA and Old Blue R.F.C. player will call Dallas home starting in February 2022, when the Jackals start their inaugural season. They’ll play matches in the old Ballpark in Arlington, now dubbed Choctaw Stadium.

There is something strange about all of this. That someone could simply fill out a form and within weeks be chasing professional-caliber athletes across wide-open spaces. It is strange to hear that universities like Life and Lindenwood and Arkansas State field powerhouse programs, or that professional players in Major League Rugby earn about as much as teachers or minor league baseball players. But maybe that’s how it should be. Maybe it is this exact sort of amateurism that encourages heedless fools to think they can play. Because rugby, I learned, is not a sport for the cautious and sane.


This story originally appeared in the November issue of D Magazine. Write to [email protected].