Discovering Milwaukee’s surprising passion for rugby
Rugby matches are faster than baseball and football games and are—thankfully—free of time-killing huddles, replays, pitchers-mound discussions, near-constant TV commercials and prima donna antics.
And rugby players are arguably more agile, aggressive and fit than baseball and football players, too.
They have to be.
Rugby is a contact sport and players typically wear no pads, hard helmets or other protective gear besides a mouth guard. And while scrapes, twists and concussions do occur, rugby players learn how to hit and tackle safely to disarm—but not injure—their opponents.
The matches are astonishingly demanding.
Play rarely stops and is free flowing. Ruggers are constantly in motion, whether they’re running, tackling, defending their turf or—somehow—passing the ball to a teammate running behind them while evading the oncoming crush of their opponents.
Watching rugby is addictive and, in Milwaukee, that craving can be cured just about any Saturday, when fans can watch top-notch athletes play, including those on the elite USA Rugby Men’s Division I Milwaukee Barbarians, affectionately known at the “Babas.”
The Barbarians field teams to play two versions of the sport: one to play 15s, in which 15 players per team take the field, and 7s, which requires seven players per team.
The Barbarians’ 15s team will take on the Metropolis Rugby Club of Minneapolis in their first home game of the autumn season on Saturday, Sept. 7, at Zablocki Park (3717 W. Howard Ave.).
Attendance is free. None of the players or coaches makes a dime from their devotion to rugby, both a blessing and a curse for the sport.
“The main reason why people in Milwaukee have never heard of rugby is because it’s amateur,” said Mike Loader, one of the Barbarians’ coaches. “But I think that if people see rugby they’ll love it. This is easily the best, cheapest sporting event in Milwaukee.”
‘Corn-Fed Wisconsin Boys’
Milwaukee has a surprisingly long rugby tradition with a handful of original teams dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, including the Milwaukee Rugby Club, the West Side Harlequins and the Black and Blues.
From there it’s grown exponentially—but under the radar.
The Barbarians were created in 2012 as a sort of supergroup of players from the Milwaukee Rugby Club and the Harlequins. They’re joined by the women’s Scylla team, which formed in 2001; men’s and women’s teams at UW-Milwaukee, Marquette University, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and UW-Parkside and college campuses throughout the state; and 20 high school teams—including the three-time boys state champions at Nicolet High School and the six-time girls national champion team at Divine Savior Holy Angels.
In addition to regular play, each summer the West Side Harlequins host the Lakefront 7s Tournament, the second-largest rugby tournament in the country. This June, 100 teams participated, including some of the highest-ranking teams in the country.
Barbarians coach Patrick Sharpe said rugby’s growth has followed the same trajectory as soccer, where it appeared on the coasts first, then moved to the Midwest.
“Here in the central region it just took longer,” Sharpe said. “But now you have some predominant clubs in the center of the states, in Kansas City, Chicago, Milwaukee, Columbus and Minneapolis.”
Coach Loader, a native of New Zealand, said one of the challenges of American rugby is a lack of qualified coaches. That’s why the Barbarians reach out to players across the state to build up their feeder teams and foster leadership skills.
“We try to help out wherever we can,” Loader said.
That Wisconsin spirit is unique to American rugby, Loader said, since most clubs playing at the Barbarians’ level include a handful of foreign players for their expertise and leadership.
“All of these boys are corn-fed Wisconsin boys,” Loader said. “We only have one foreigner on the team and he was brought here by way of marriage and work. But these boys are Wisconsin raised and they’re competing with guys who have grown up with rugby all of their lives. Milwaukee needs to get behind this team.”
The Strongest Camaraderie Sport
Milwaukee’s clubs are rising just as the sport is gaining attention in the U.S. The governing body USA Rugby oversees four national teams (the American Eagles), more than 700 senior club teams (including the Barbarians), 900 college teams, 1,200 high school teams and 400 youth teams.
Loader said the International Rugby Board (IRB), the global governing body, and rugby’s biggest corporate sponsor, the New York-based insurance corporation AIG, want to move into the U.S. in a big way.
“It’s a huge untapped market for three of the most precious resources—players, audience and sponsors,” Loader said.
Rugby’s profile will be raised even higher in 2016, when, after a 92-year absence, it will return to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in its seven-player form.
“The impact of getting rugby back into the Olympics has been a tremendous driving force,” coach Sharpe said.
Loader predicted that rugby would go professional in the next five years in the U.S., and the Milwaukee Barbarians’ top players could go pro if given the chance.
“Our goal is to have a Barbarian wear an Eagles jersey in the next five years and be local and have come through our system,” Loader said.
But the vast majority of the growing number of rugby players won’t earn a paycheck from their efforts on the pitch and are devoted to the sport for its intangible rewards.
“The idea is good fun, good sports and good times,” said Sharpe. “It is the strongest camaraderie sport in the world. There is no other sport in the world where you can go out and play 80 minutes and the guy you just played against and you tackled and he tackled you is your friend for the rest of your life.”
Rugby developed from a soccer game played in 1823 at Rugby School in England, when student William Webb Ellis decided to pick up the ball and run. About 30 years later in the U.S., it morphed into football. If you know anything about any of those sports, you’ll be able to pick up on rugby without much trouble. Here are some common rugby terms to help you understand your first match:
■ 7s: A match played with seven players per side.
■ 15s: A match played with 15 players per side.
■ Forward pass: Unlike football, forward passes in rugby are not allowed and they force play to stop and the ball to change possession.
■ Match: The game, which is split into two halves. 15s matches are comprised of two 40-minute periods separated by a five-minute break. 7s matches are two seven-minute periods with a one-minute halftime.
■ Pass: Any player may throw the ball to his or her teammate, but the pass cannot travel forward.
■ Pitch: The playing field.
■ Scrum: To restart play, the players lock into a crouched huddle and dig in to push forward and capture the ball, which is rolled on the ground between the opposing players.
■ Side: A team.
■ Tackles: Defensive players can tackle a player carrying the ball but cannot tackle him or her above the shoulders.
■ Try: Similar to a touchdown, a try is worth five points and is earned after a player crosses the try line (the goal line) and places the ball on the ground with downward pressure. After a try, the scoring team attempts to kick a two-point conversion through the two goal posts.