For Maryland rugby team, NBC-televised tourney may be start of something big

You start out playing other sports as a kid, but eventually you discover you don’t have the size or speed for football, nor the patience for baseball. Soccer is fine, to a point, but every time you play you’re overwhelmed by the urge to pick up the ball and run — or to go upside somebody’s head. And then one day, someone — an older, cooler, tougher kid — invites you to come out for rugby.

And that’s how you discover the game that will become the love of your sporting life, a sport where the camaraderie just feels deeper, and the level of physicality strikes the right balance, and where anyone — even a smaller guy, even a guy with 11 / 2 arms — can be a standout.

Soccer “is actually quite boring,” explains Matt Reilly of the University of Maryland men’s rugby club. But “when you get into rugby, it’s exciting. It’s fast-paced. It’s hard-hitting. So I have a love for the game now, and I really wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

As for his disability — he was born without a left hand — Reilly says, “Rugby is just kind of a leveler.”

Of course, when you choose rugby, you also relinquish all realistic hope of future fame and fortune. The best you can hope for might be a fun little post-grad stint on a club team in New Zealand or South Africa, or some other far-flung place where rugby sells.

But then one day, rugby “sevens” — the smaller, faster, seven-a-side version of a game traditionally played with 15 a side — gets chosen as an Olympic sport, beginning in 2016, and NBC, which owns broadcasting rights to the Games in the United States, suddenly gets very interested in rugby.

And all of a sudden, your team, the Terrapins, fresh off an Atlantic Coast Rugby League championship in 15s, is invited to Philadelphia for a national tournament — the 2012 USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championship — this weekend, with the Team USA national coaches on hand and the whole thing televised nationally by NBC.

“It hasn’t really sunk in that we’re going to be on national TV,” said center John Davis, a sophomore from College Park. “It’s a huge opportunity for us, and for the sport. Hopefully it will be the start of something — maybe [it can] give rugby a higher profile nationally.”

A certain cachet, mystique

As things stand, there’s not much glamour in collegiate rugby. The Terrapins — a club team, which means it is not under the umbrella of the university athletic department — practice on a field at the center of the horseshoe that forms Fraternity Row, and they play most of their games on the intramural Engineering Fields off Route 1.

On a recent Tuesday, players huddled under a tree before practice, wrapping their own thighs — the team having been hit of late by an epidemic of hamstring pulls — and taping their own ankles.

“Rugby can be brutal,” said flyhalf Matias Cima, a sophomore from Bethesda who has been dealing with a strained hamstring since December — an injury that just recently caused him to be dropped from the U.S. under-20 national team. “It takes a toll on your body.”

But, Cima says, “It’s a sport that, once it sucks you in, you can’t let go. There’s nothing else like it — the camaraderie. You hit some guy, and then once you’re off the field you have a drink with him. In Argentina, the home team has a barbecue after every game, and players from both teams go. Everywhere you go, you always have a friend in the rugby world.”

Around Maryland’s campus, it’s difficult enough just to make people aware of the rugby team’s existence, let alone draw folks to the games. “People think it’s a joke,” Davis says. “It’s like, ‘Maryland has a rugby team?’ ” (In fact, it has two — there’s a women’s team as well.)

But truth be told, that “outsider” vibe is part of what draws young men to rugby, at least stateside. The game has a certain cachet, a certain mystique, one part international flair, one part adrenaline-stoking danger. How cool is it that, while the NFL, with its heavily padded athletes-as-missiles, deals with a backlash against the violence in its sport, rugby players bang against each other all day with only mouthpieces protecting them from the hits?

“You put [football players] in pads, and make them feel invincible, and let them go after each other. It’s no wonder so many guys are getting hurt,” says Jeff Soeken, the Terrapins’ head coach and himself a former standout for the school. “Here, you can hit as hard as you want to, but you’re going to get hurt, too.” It may be counter-intuitive, but the lack of padding actually makes rugby safer.

It also helps that rugby is obscure enough, and its opportunity for future riches non-existent enough, that it hasn’t been overtaken by a bunch of 6-foot-4, 250-pound behemoths who run 4.4s in the 40-yard dash.

“I don’t know why, [but] people have a hard time coming to grips with it,” Reilly says. “Probably the hitting and the short-shorts.”

Accidental introduction

The Terrapins’ two best players have international backgrounds: Cima, whose father played for 30 years in Argentina, started playing at the age of 5; and wing-fullback Trevor Tanifum is a native of England.

Most of the players, however, came to the game the same way: by accident.

Reilly’s story is typical. Turned off by his experience playing freshman football at St. John’s in the District, he was looking for a different sport, when an upperclassman friend on the rugby team suggested he tag along to the team’s first practice. As the team gathered around the coach, Reilly stood off to the side of the circle of players, intending to merely observe.

“Hey,” the coach said, looking at Reilly. “Are you with us?”

“Uh, yeah,” Reilly replied, “I guess so.”

He soon realized his disability was scarcely one at all. He throws with his right hand, catches the ball with both arms, and tucks the ball under his left armpit when he runs, using his right hand to stiff-arm defenders. His speed made him a natural to play wing, where he frequently gets the ball on the outside and dashes down the sideline.

“At first, we didn’t take him that seriously,” said Davis, a Gonzaga graduate, recalling his first meeting against Reilly’s St. Johns squad in high school. “But that first game, five or 10 minutes in you could tell he was the best player on that team. . . . He’s an absolute warrior — definitely one of the toughest kids on our team.”

Cima, another Gonzaga product, recalls seeing Reilly challenge some ROTC students to a chin-up contest, performing his own with only one hand, but still beating everyone. “He has superhuman strength in that right arm,” Cima said. “He’s a maniac.”

Like all his teammates, and anyone who has ever fallen in love with rugby in America, Reilly would like to see rugby gain some traction in the United States. He’d like to be able to watch the sport without DVRing some late-night match from Australia on some obscure sports channel, or without having to click through grainy YouTube videos.

“I would just love to be able to flip on the TV and be able to watch it every day,” he says.

What the Philadelphia tournament is, then, is the start of something. Perhaps it’s a movement, the first step toward a rugby explosion in the United States, or perhaps it’s just a made-for-TV vanity project for a network looking out for its own self-interests, four years ahead of the 2016 Summer Games.

Either way, if folks flip on their TV to NBC at 4 p.m. on Sunday, they’re going see rugby — the championship round of the USA Sevens. And if all has gone well for Matt Reilly and his mates over the course of the weekend, those folks are going to see the Maryland Terrapins.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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