For the love of rugby

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
"Bring the heat, bring the pain."

These demands from the captain of the Kansas City Blues Rugby Club set off another no-holds-barred match of colliding bodies, shouted expletives and bloody injuries.

This sport, played worldwide by men hell-bent on barreling through any opponent who dares get in their way on the field, is known for both the vicious nature of its matches, as well as the sense of brotherhood it promotes. It also has its followers at Whiteman Air Force Base.

"I love the feeling of just running over someone or tackling them so hard you hear the air leave their lungs," said Staff Sgt. Zachary Hildebrand, who plays Division III for the Blues sporting club.

At any time, he can be found filling the position of prop, hooker, flanker or his favorite, "8-man."

Whiteman, located 65 miles east of Kansas City, is Hildebrand's home. He makes the two-hour round-trip three times a week to practice and play rugby with the Blues. As the only professionally backed rugby club in America, a lot is expected of its players.

Rugby attracts a motley crew of individuals -- this team in particular is composed of lawyers, molecular biology engineers, and Soldiers and Airmen from around Missouri.

"First and foremost, the physicality of the sport is what draws me to it," said Hildebrand. "It reminds me of when I was a little boy playing backyard football with my best friends without a care in the world, except rugby is a lot more structured. The brotherhood in this sport is second to none!"

First-time fans of the game would find this hard to believe -- physical and verbal confrontations often erupt on the field. Long-time fans have come to expect them.

"The type of friendship in rugby just isn't found in traditional American sports," said Eirik Hartley, a former senior airman who now plays as a back on the Blues. "I could literally punch a guy in the face in a rugby match, and then be drinking with him two hours later in the bar. That's what I love about the game."

Most rugby teams will play in any condition - rain, shine, hail, snow, lightning or thunder. Hildebrand's favorite rugby memory comes from one of these bad-weather moments.

"Our Division I team was out playing in Utah, so our coaches organized a 'friendly match' for us against the Rogues, another team in Kansas City," said Hildebrand, who also scored his first try that day. "They were short-manned, so we gave them three players. We had no coaches, so we self-coached. It was raining so hard you could hardly see a foot in front of you, and it was lightning and thundering. It was surreal to be playing in those conditions, but it never crossed our minds to cancel it.

"That day, we played for the love of rugby."

Although football and rugby share common beginnings, the modern sports bear little resemblance to each other. In football, 11 players at a time are on the field for a game of four 15-minute quarters. During these 60 minutes of play, the clock stops to let teams organize and teams can substitute players at will, with no limitations.

In rugby, 15 players will play for two 40-minutes halves. The clock does not stop, and substitutions are limited.

"It's an all-out battle for 80 minutes," said Hildebrand. "If someone is seriously injured, then we'll stop the clock, but a lot of us will continue playing through the pain. If you get a bloody nose, you run to the sideline, shove some cotton up there and get back out on the field.

"During the match with the Rogues, I got a thumb in the eye and it hurt so bad I thought my eye was out of socket, but it was just bleeding. The only pain in rugby is regret."

Hildebrand has been invited to trials for the Air Force rugby team and if selected, will travel and represent the service in matches around the country.

Another difference between football and rugby is the protection. In football, it is helmets and pads from head to knee; in rugby, the most protection available is the option of a soft covering for the head. Known as a scrum cap, it helps prevent cauliflower ear - an unsightly and permanent deformity.

A scrum is when the eight forwards (the biggest and most powerful players on the field) from each team link into a specific formation and at the command of the referee, smash into each other. The thud of the collision is audible across the field.

Although rugby is potentially dangerous, the players rely heavily on each other to make sure safety is not compromised.

"Rugby is the ultimate team sport," said Capt. Christopher DarCaronte, another Airman stationed at Whiteman who is currently deployed to Southwest Asia. "In a scrum, if all eight forwards don't work together, the entire formation will collapse. In football, a decent quarterback, receiver or running back can carry the team. In rugby though, any weakness in your line will be exploited by your opponent."

Although action on the field looks chaotic, it takes practice to make that chaos organized. Although practice is only done at about 80 percent intensity, it takes the same characteristics to make the time worthwhile.

"To someone who doesn't play or understand rugby, the sport appears to be a chaotic mess. It's 30 men running around chasing a ball and hitting each other," said DarCaronte. "But if you go in with the mindset of just wanting to hit someone, you will quickly find yourself falling behind and watching from the sideline. Rugby is complicated and each player needs to be thinking ahead about where the ball will be and predicting the type of play the opponent is trying to run."

Hildebrand, Hartley and DarCaronte all agree -- they do not play rugby to lose.

"Winning isn't everything ... it's the only thing," said Hildebrand. "Rugby is like war - easy to start, difficult to stop and impossible to forget."