(Photo by Michael Wichita)
Just watching a Washington Renegades rugby practice from the sidelines, one starts to feel gripped by the passion on the field. There's excitement. Anticipation. Camaraderie. And love. Love for for one's teammates and the sport.
Rugby, you see, is a very emotional game.
It's also a very painful game. In fact, Renegades teammates mention their bruises as if the black-and-blue marks are a trendy accessory.
And then there's rugby's addictive quality -- for both participants and spectators. And the Washington Renegades, the nation's first predominantly gay rugby club and one of the founders of the International Gay Rugby Association, is doing its best to get as many people hooked as possible. In a world where hard-core sports reign supreme, it's easy to see the lure of rugby as thirty sweat-drenched men, without protective gear, wrestle their way around an open field, brutally throwing themselves and each other to the ground as they desperately protect an oval-shaped ball. At times, the action on field transcends rough and tumble, becoming, in a sense, an athletic man-pulverizing ballet.
One could almost call rugby the godfather of extreme sports.
In October, 1998, about a dozen rugby players came together, some experienced, some not, to create the Renegades. In just four years, the team's membership base has grown to sixty (including both players and supporters) and the organization is a recognized member of the Potomac Rugby Union. Officially, rugby clubs are categorized by division. Division I teams are professional, while Division II is not as competitive, but still plenty hardcore (there's "still blood" in Division II play). As a Division III club, the Renegades are considered a social club. After each match, it's traditional for both teams to gather for a post-match social, which the Renegades hold at D.C.'s Hamburger Mary's, the team's home pub.
"It's the kind of sport where you beat each other up during the game," says Jose Carreón, the team's marketing chair, "and then have a beer afterwards."
According to club president Mike Baks, when the Renegades were formed, about 80 percent of the members had never before played rugby -- the team's dedication to recruiting and teaching newcomers has become a trademark. The Renegades is also know for its commitment to diversity, as the country's first and largest rugby club to aggressively recruit men of color as well as gay men.
It's easy to picture the Renegades representing the hometown at The Bingham Cup. In late June, the team traveled to San Francisco to compete for the gay rugby world championship in the Mark Kendall Bingham Cup and Festival, honoring Mark Bingham, one of the United Flight 93 passengers who fought the Sept. 11 highjackers.
Unfortunately, the Renegades didn't claim the tournament's top prize, which went to the San Francisco Fog. But as most members would testify, being a Renegade is about much more than being top dog. In addition to pursuing the more modern tradition of diversity, the club also maintains the much older and much hallowed rugby traditions of friendship and bonding -- namely, guzzling beer and running around naked. After each game, explains Baks, an honor is bestowed upon the "Man of the Match" who must then knock back more than a pint of beer in one gulp. As far as the naked aspect is concerned, when a new player scores for the first time, he is bound by tradition to shed his clothes and run around the bar in the nude. Stripped, sweaty, beer-loving rugby players -- every bar owner's dream.
To the uninitiated, rugby may seem confusing. But watch the Renegades play a few times and the sport's rules begin to crystallize. Each team fields fifteen players (although some variations are played with only seven or 10 men on each side). The object of the game is to carry, pass or kick the ball to a scoring zone at each end of the field. After a player gets the ball in his team's scoring zone, he has to touch the ball to the ground, which is called a "try" and counts for five points. Then the scoring team is entitled to a "conversion," which is attempted by kicking the ball over the bar between the goal posts and is worth two points.
Sounds like good old American football, right? Partly. Just like football, the confusing part of rugby is the rules governing how a player gets the ball to the scoring zone.
In rugby, unlike football, all play is continuous and the ball cannot be passed forward, although it can be kicked forward. A "scrum," which generally restarts a game after a penalty is incurred, involves eight players from each team who form a tight, interlocking formation low to the ground while the ball is then rolled into the center of the formation. The locked scrum then moves up and back until a player can kick or throw the ball behind him to a teammate.
There are also "rucks" and "mauls" in this fearless English sport. If the ball is being held off the ground and more than two players then bind together, a maul is created. If someone is curled into a fetal position on the ground frantically protecting the ball from the opposing team, the group of bound players is then called a ruck. Once rucks and mauls are set, then two imaginary offside lines appear around the rucking and mauling players. Any player who runs pass an offside line, from behind the line, and doesn't join the ruck or maul will cause a penalty.
Alright everyone, is that clear? If not, be sure to ask your nearest Renegade. They'll be happy to sort things out for you.
The Washington Renegades Rugby Football Club will hold a season kickoff and recruiting party on Thursday, August 8, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Hamburger Mary's, 1337 14th Street NW. The team currently practices every Tuesday and Thursday, weather permitting, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Stead Field, located behind JR.'s Bar & Grill at 17th and Church Streets. For more information, visit www.renegades-rugby.org.