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Rugby, whose name derives from a posh English boarding school, has long been played by urbane men with compound names like Phil Horrocks-Taylor, the British flyhalf of whom an opponent once said, "Every time I went to tackle him, Horrocks went one way, Taylor went the other, and all I got was the bloody hyphen."
And while that is representative of English rugby wit, you're more likely familiar with American rugby humor, as seen on countless jocular T-shirts (betty ford rugby club) and double-entendre bumper stickers alluding to one of the game's positions (support your local hooker: play rugby).
Dan Lyle is the former tight end at VMI who spurned the NFL to become America's greatest international rugby star. "Division I football players party just as hard as rugby players," he says. "It's just that [the footballers don't] buy the bumper stickers or wear the T-shirts. Some rugby players, for whatever reason, feel the need to advertise that behavior."
As a result, "there are two broad stereotypes that people in America have of rugby players," says flyhalf Mike Hercus, the alltime leading scorer on the U.S. national team. "They think that a) you're a big drinker and b) the game is so violent that no one should be allowed to play it."
Rugby can be brutal. Four years ago Stanford forfeited its match against college powerhouse Cal out of "fear for their safety," as the Cardinal coach readily admitted. Against France in 1986, Wayne (Buck) Shelford of the All Blacks suffered a badly torn scrotum, though that adverb is surely superfluous. While a French TV camera looked on--voyeur is a French word, after all--Shelford was sewn up on the touchline and returned to the pitch to play. And yet he never bought the T-shirt that reads, rugby: it takes leather balls.
That's because topflight international rugby players are uncannily self-effacing, refined and well-spoken. (They can abide a dangling testicle, but not a dangling participle.) The eloquent Lyle, who retired in 2003 after a seven-year career in England's Guinness Premiership, is now evangelizing Americans on behalf of rugby, a sport he calls "ennobling." He says, "We only need one to two percent of Americans to like it."
The U.S. has long had a thriving college rugby subculture whose capital is Berkeley, where U.S. national team captain Kort Schubert grew to love the game. "For 80 minutes you try to tear someone's head off and rub his face in the dirt," says Schubert, who plays professionally for the Cardiff Blues in Wales. "Afterward, you shake their hand and look them in the eye and talk about how well both teams played. It's that kind of brotherhood that attracted me to the game." Rugby combines conviviality and cartoon violence. It is part Horrocks-Taylor, part Hanna-Barbera.
In America rugby has too often been exclusively about postmatch camaraderie. "It's a social game in our country," says U.S. coach Tom Billups. Or as Schubert puts it, "The average American thinks it's all about kegs of beer." However, "you'll find that there's quite a number of guys on our team who don't drink," says the Virginia-born, Australia-raised Hercus. "Many never even entertain the thought. Whilst most are so-called amateurs, there is still an amazing amount of professionalism among the guys." (When's the last time you heard an athlete use the word whilst?)
After being annihilated by Wales, 77-3, in a test match in Hartford last Saturday, the U.S. Eagles, ranked 15th in the world, fell to a perfect 0-52 alltime against so-called Tier 1 rugby nations. But then the U.S. is still made up almost entirely of amateurs, men like investment banker Mark Griffin, who only moonlights as a hooker.
The fifth-ranked Welsh, meanwhile, who are are all professionals and are the winners of last winter's Six Nations championship, the most prestigious international competition in European rugby. Alas, such is the paucity (and tone) of rugby coverage in the U.S. that you heard not about the tournament but only about the Welshman who promised, in front of his fellow bar patrons, to "cut my balls off" should Wales beat England in the Six Nations opener. When Wales did, Geoff Huish made good on his word. (The two veg were put in a pint glass until an ambulance arrived.) Says Hercus, who plays professionally for the Llanelli Scarlets in Wales, "The hard-core fans are ... hard-core."