The All-Blacks, Bluto, Wormer national champs
The All-Blacks from host New Zealand triumphed before their adoring public last week in the Rugby World Cup, defeating France in the final. Perhaps you watched the match on national TV.
Rugby is a sport of great international scope, the national game in Wales, South Africa, and New Zealand and popular in many other countries of the world. Rugby’s following in the U.S. is growing.
I had a chance to travel to rugby-crazed New Zealand some years ago. I came home with a suitcase full of cool All-Blacks gear as gifts for kids and friends.
My son David played on the Los Angeles Rugby Club when he was working in that city a couple years ago.
When he was between jobs in 2007, living at home briefly, we purchased the rugby package on satellite TV. I watched the quadrennial World Cup with a houseful of excited lads every night for weeks.
My daughter Jane is married to Adrian, a Welshman, a good fellow, a rugby fanatico, who claims that he is “contractually obligated” to be a rugby fan — it’s his birthright.
I have thus come to appreciate the game.
It wasn’t always this way. My local experience with rugby was not entirely felicitous.
When I was the “Dean of Beer” at Middlebury College, personally responsible for every alcohol-fueled student misdeed, the rugby team was the bane of my existence.
The team was always on probation, if not suspended, their season cut short by some outrage or another.
Middlebury rugby was personified for me by a student, a rugby player, whose nickname was “Belushi.” The resemblance went beyond the mere physical, and I, alas, was forced to play Dean Wormer to his Bluto.
One fall, the Middlebury rugby club traveled to Colby College and behaved like drunken louts after the game. We received an angry letter from the Colby authorities.
(I begged team members to wear “Dartmouth” or “Williams” sweatshirts for their post-game revels away from home.)
The consequences back here included a work component, conceived by Dean of Students Erica Wonnacott. Team members were put to work planting daffodil bulbs throughout the center of campus.
Now every spring these daffodils blossom and announce the fair weather: We call them the “rugby daffodils.”
Rugby at Middlebury is different now, quite transformed:
The team is a powerhouse, national champions in Division II in 2007 and 2009; players take themselves seriously as athletes, and are responsible school citizens. The club takes on much larger schools and players (this fall: UMass, Northeastern, UConn, Boston College).
For 10 years, 2001-2010, the Middlebury team was undefeated in the regular season. It is the best team among the schools in NESCAC, “by leaps and bounds,” according to Professor of Spanish Miguel Fernandez, Middlebury, 1985.
Fernandez has participated in this transformation, first as a player on the team in the raucous 1980s, and since then as the Rugby Club’s Faculty Affiliate (adviser).
He thinks I exaggerate the team’s early history of misbehavior. “It was a mix,” he says, “of good, dedicated players, the athletes, . . . and the other guys, the ‘castaways.’”
Writer Stephen Kiernan, Middlebury ’87, contends, “We were hooligans but harmless.”
Kiernan says that the rugby teams he played on represent “the deepest camaraderie of my life. Moreover, the friendship we developed with our opponents kept the game in proper perspective.”
Prof. Fernandez is a rugby lifer. A referee, he is a member of the New England Rugby Society. He grew up playing the game “as a kid” in Argentina and Mexico, and then as a high school student in France, prior to attending Middlebury.
Fernandez gives much credit for the Middlebury rugby success story to Coach Ward Patterson, a native South African educated in the States, who came from the Midwest to lead Middlebury in the early 1990s.
“Ward is the reason Middlebury rugby is where it is today. He had a vision; he changed the culture. He created a community of camaraderie and respect.” Patterson had a deep knowledge and love of the game, and added rituals and traditions and demanded a serious commitment from players.
Middlebury’s international reputation has also benefited rugby. “International students wanting a good education and good rugby come to Middlebury or Dartmouth (a level up), on the East Coast,” according to Fernandez.
This year’s team has two Brits, a native of Hong Kong, and African students from Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. Middlebury’s All-Americans were from Fiji (Epeli Rokotuikau, 2004) and Nigeria (Pascal Losambe, 2007).
“Also, more and more American high school students are coming to Middlebury with prior rugby experience, over half the team now,” explains Fernandez.
Patterson is back in the Midwest coaching at his alma mater, Principia College. The head coach of the men’s team now (since 2008) is a Welshman living in Burlington, John Phillips. The women’s team is coached by K.O. Onufry, who played on the U.S. National Team.
Rugby players like to say their sport is “a game for hooligans played by gentlemen.” That might actually be the case at Middlebury College these days — and played damn well.
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