The Washington Irish Rugby Football Club, a brand new organization, is getting ready for its first season of competition in the Potomac Rugby Union.

That means that on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and on Saturday mornings whatever club members can make it gather on a cold field in Arlington and run and kick and dribble and pass, sprint, tumble and roll.

In three weeks they will play their first rugby game against the Richmond Area Touring Side on the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Like most Americans I don't understand rugby, so I went to one of the Irish club's practices one dark Tuesday evening to watch. Pretty soon they had me playing, which is what they do to anybody who happens along and looks even moderately athletic.

I did what they told me and it was fun, but I didn't understand what was going on. I saw Mike McCarthy, a big, strong redheaded guy, taking a breather between drills. I sidled over and squatted next to him.

"Tell me something," I said. "Why is it that sometimes they tell me to kick the ball and sometimes they want me to run along with it in my hands?"

McCarthy looked up and the sweat was rolling off his forehead.

"You better ask John," he said. "I don't know."

Washington rugby gets bigger every year, and one of the reasons is that you don't have to know a blessed thing to get on a team. Just show up.

John is John Adams, a veteran of the American University Rugby Club and one of the founders of the new Irish club.

"One of the beauties of rugby is that we don't have any benchwarmers," Adams said. "If you're willing to play you'll get a game every Saturday, no matter how good you are."

When Adams first started playing rugby around Washington about a decade ago, there were 15 or so clubs in the Potomac Rugby Union. Today there are close to 30, and each club fields at least two "sides" (15-man teams) of different skill levels. Some clubs have as many as four or five sides.

And they all play, every weekend.

Rugby is a strange sport. It's a meld of American football and European soccer with some other stuff thrown in. A good rugby player has to be able to handle the ball and run with it, pass it sideways (no forward passes allowed), dribble it with his feet, push and shove and tackle and suffer multitudes of what the players call "superficial" wounds and still keep playing.

Most of all, a rugby player has to be in shape. There are two 40-minute halves in a game and no timeouts or substitutions, except when one of those "superficial" injuries proves "debilitating" and a player has to be carried off, which doesn't happen often.

"It's constant flow," said Jay Kimmit, who coaches and plays for the Irish club. Kimmit played football at West Point for three years. He likes rugby better. The nonstop action is what pleases him most.

"In football you might have five seconds of action and then you stand around for 30 seconds waiting for the next play. In rugby the game never stops."

Eighty-minute games with five-minute halftime, and running all the time. How long can the average human take that regimen?

Not all that long, which is how guys like McCarthy come to be huffing and puffing on the sidelines three weeks before the season begins and still not even understand the game. They are future fodder for the club's "A"side.

"What happens in both rugby and soccer is that as people get better they also get older," said Matt Godek, who knows from experience. "There's always a need for new talent at the bottom so they can work up and replace the older guys who retire to old boys' clubs."

Godek is an "old boy" now, in his early 30s. He could still play competitively with the top clubs, but he hasn't the time to devote any more.

When he was in his prime, rugby was a six-day-a-week proposition for him. Tuesdays and Thursday were for practice; Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he ran to keep in shape, and Saturdays were for games.

He's played all over the East Coast and at one time was selected for the Eastern U.S. team. He's played in Britain and Europe. Wherever he's gone, he said, the problem was the same: "The biggest problem in any area is finding a club to get started with." That's strange, because all the clubs are always looking for new members.

Top-quality newcomers need not worry about serving long apprenticeships before they get good enough to play with the big boys. Godek says he's seen natural athletes in good shape move from complete novices to "A" side regulars in as little as six to seven weeks.

Less skilled players are likely to spend a few seasons on a club's "C" or "B" sides before moving up to top-level compeition.

In any case, they'll get to play all along the way. And share in the other rite of rugby, the after-game social during which significant amounts of beer are consumed and players who have spent the day mauling each other make friends again.

The season's first top-notch rugby game is scheduled for 2:30 on March 5, at 16th and Kennedy Streets NW, when a touring squad of Welshmaen and Frenchmen square off against Washington's Old Red "A" side.

Then the regular club games begin the following week. And sometime March 15 on the Mall in front of Lincoln Memorial Mike McCarthy, new man on the Washington Irish Rugby Football Club, will discover why it is that sometimes you kick the ball and sometimes you run with it.

He'll find out. The hard way.