Worldly sport of brutal gentlemen finds a home in Storm Lake
It has been said rugby is a ruffian's sport played by gentleman. Not many will argue there is plenty of roughness and even a little lawlessness to the sport. As for the gentlemen, some will say size and power are less important than what is on the inside.
"You just can't play the game half-heartedly," said Michael Keith, president of the local Albatross Rugby team. "You don't need to be a great athlete to play, but you have to have a little bit of heart and a desire to win."
Not to mention a certain amount of masochism.
"Rugby requires an unbelievable amount of stamina," said Bill Klinker, an attorney located in Primghar who plays not only for the current Albatross team, but played for Storm Lake's Seagulls team back in the mid-1970's. "It incorporates so many different skills, not least is the running for an hour and a half straight. I believe it is the most physical sport a person can ever do."
Injuries, though not uncommon, are really not any more prevalent in the game of rugby than in a typical football game, according to Klinker.
"It depends on how hard you want to play rugby... I would say it's usually more superficial injuries like stitches than the debilitating injuries you can see a lot in football."
Since rugby players wear no pads and tackle their opponents - at first glance rugby can look all-out ferocious.
"It's the question I get asked the most, by people who don't know anything about the game," said Loren Brake, a rural Alta farmer who has been playing for the Albatross team since its inception in 1983. "We're not wearing any pads, but neither is the guy you're tackling, or who's tackling you. Usually, you're not hitting as hard as you would if you were wearing pads."
Though Keith admits rugby is not a sport for everyone, he is quick to point out there is a place on a rugby team for all kinds of bodies.
"There is positions in the field for everyone," he said. "You can't really be delicate to play, but it's not just a game for arm breakers and thugs, you just can't be afraid to hit someone."
Klinker believes so strongly in the game he is teaching his 14-year-old son all about it and cannot wait until the day he deems him old enough to get out on the "pitch," or field.
Klinker says though his playing days are close to over, the sport has been good to him.
"Every time I get injured, I kind of retire, but then I usually end up playing just one more game," said Klinker. "It's tough to be 45-years-old and running for 80 minutes and taking hits from 20-year-olds."
The basic game involves 15 players. The object is to score as many points as possible by carrying, passing, kicking and grounding an oval ball in the scoring zone at the far end of the field - called the in-goal area. Grounding the ball, which must be done with downward pressure, results in a try, worth five points. After a try, a conversion may be attempted by place kick or drop kick. If the ball passes over the bar and between the goal posts the conversion is successful and results in a further two points.
The ball may not be passed forward, though it may be kicked forward. Players may not be tackled without the ball. Play only stops when a try is scored, or the ball goes out of play, or an infringement occurs. When the ball goes out it is thrown back in at a line-out where the opposing forwards line up and jump for the ball. Infringements result in a penalty, or free kick, or scrum.
In a scrum the opposing forwards huddle as a unit and push against the other forwards, trying to win the ball with their feet. Substitutions are only allowed in case of injury and there is no separate offensive and defensive unit.
If this sounds complicated, it is.
"Rugby took a while to grow on me, because you're playing a sport you don't really understand," said Brake "I'd say it took me three years to really start to understand it and even after that you're still learning."
Rugby, though relatively young in the United States, has long been popular in European countries. From Great Britain, which has remained the center of rugby with its four national teams, England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, the game has spread over the rest of Europe, the Commonwealth countries, and America.
The rules of rugby have changed a great deal since 1871 when the England Rugby Football Union was founded and have spawned other games, most notably American football.
Though some other countries may consider rugby its national sport, some even a religion - rugby players in rural Iowa may be born out of a lack of other options.
"Most people play rugby here because at one time or another they played sports either in high school or at a college level and they didn't want to give up competing," said Keith. "Around here, we don't have any other organized sports for people who enjoy contact sports. It's really a way for an athlete to continue to be an athlete."
"At the highest level, the teams have yearly budgets of upwards of a $100,000 and their players are recruited to play at the national level," Klinker said.
Problems with much smaller rugby programs such as the Albatross team include keeping a young veteran base on the team, and having enough experienced players to teach the rookies the ropes, he added.
"A lot of our players are college kids, or young professionals who move on in a few years."
Having a small team also hampers practice. "It's hard to practice with only 15 guys," said Klinker. "Bigger programs really get more out of their practices because they can have 30 guys out there playing."
Despite the struggles, the Albatross team has managed to remain very competitive for a small club, according to Keith.
"We're one of the smaller communities that can field a team," said Keith. "We haven't placed less than fourth in any of the tournaments we've played in this season."
The Albatross team typically has two seasons of play - fall and spring. In their spring season they usually play about five tournaments and around twenty games.
"I think rugby makes available the purest form of athletic opportunity," said Klinker. "And in part, because of the violence of the sport I think the teams have an incredible bond. If you're willing to work hard, it's just fun. Even beat up it has kept me young."
The bond rugby teams feel not only with their teammates, but with their opponents, is something many who play rugby talk about.
"The social aspect of the game is great," said Brake. "A lot of sports you shake hands with your opponents and walk away. In rugby, a team might host a party and slap an opposing guy on the back and tell him nice hit. I enjoy the sport and really enjoy the people who play. I wouldn't keep doing it if I didn't."
The Albatross team has around 32 players on its rooster.
Small teams such as the Albatross promote themselves as being social clubs who play good rugby, according to Klinker. This mentality in his opinion makes it easier to recruit new players and makes the game more fun for everyone.
"If it wasn't for the support of our local sponsors, the Albatross Rugby team would really not be able to continue," said Keith. "Our local sponsors are greatly appreciated."
The Albatross tries to practice about once a week at Frank Starr Park in Storm Lake. Anyone interested in joining is encouraged to attend a practices and see what the sport is all about.