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A Ruggerous Education

A Ruggerous Education
A sport known for toughness, rugby at KSC also depends on finesse and dedication.

Photo: Keene State in red versus the Concord Rugby Club in a 1972 contest (left-right): Jack Larrareo (leaning), Art Trattiar  (background), Jason Crook, Tom Baldwin,  Dana Sullivan, Joe Stewart, unidentied, and Bruce Stephenson.

It may not be a varsity sport at Keene State, but that doesn't matter to rugby players, whose passion for their game rivals that of any intercollegiate athlete.

"I've played contact sports – hockey and lacrosse – but there's a rush in rugby you can't get anywhere else," said Pat Brown '98. "You don't find camaraderie like this in any other sport in the country."

Photo by Bill Gnade The club rugby program at Keene State began in the fall of 1973. Started by Bruce Stephenson '74, a non-traditional student who was smitten by the sport growing up in the Virginia area, rugby was a hard sell at first.

"I was going down Appian Way tapping people on the shoulder asking, 'Have you heard about rugby? Do you want to play?'"

Stephenson, who became the team's player-coach, said 16 guys showed up at the first meeting. "I asked if anyone had played rugby before. I got blank stares, except for one hand in the back row went up," he said.

I never thought I'd be crying over a rugby game. Although an unexpectedly huge crowd showed up to watch the team's first game, KSC, with its 13-member squad, was no match for Springfield. "I got crushed on one play," Stephenson recalled. "I thought my teammates would be with me, but they had no idea what I was talking about. So I went out and hit a 260-pounder. He just stomped on me and walked all over my head and scored."

The following year, Stephenson took the team to a scrimmage at the University of New Hampshire. "They watched the first game and I had a mutiny on my hand. 'We're not going out there!' they said."

Photo by Bill Gnade "But once the players got into the game, they came out like conquering heroes," Stephenson said. "They lived through this."

To an uninformed spectator, the game of rugby looks like football without pads. But it's not. According to Stephenson there is a method to the madness and not just random bodies flying all over the place.

"You have to de-program the football mentality of Americans while teaching the skills and strategy, not to mention the rules of the game," Stephenson explained. "If you tackle with your head, you're going to get hurt."

I had a few concussions, but I got hurt a lot more cheerleading in high school. Stephenson left the area after receiving his degree in history, but he returned to the campus in the late 70s. Serving as an adjunct professor and running Carle Hall, Stephenson also attempted a brief return to rugby. His tenure with the team was brief, however, when he realized most of the others were more interested in the social aspect of the game.

Then, years later, in 1991, Stephenson began his third stint as KSC rugby coach, taking over from Joe Pardee '89, who had become involved while a student. "I told the players I needed a commitment that they were interested in learning the game," he said.

Photo by Bill Gnade Coaching players who had the desire to learn and excel in the sport, Stephenson turned the team into winners. From 1991 to 1995, KSC posted an impressive 22-2 mark during its fall seasons and advanced to the playoffs of the New England Rugby Football Union (NERFU) every year. Initially playing in Division III, KSC moved up to the more competitive Division II in 1995.

"I was always trying to get the team to play at a higher standard," said Stephenson.

"At first, we didn't have finesse or fitness; we just used brawn mentality and tried to bash people," said Alex MacLeod '92 M'94. "Bruce came in and laid down the law. He told us the game was 80 percent fitness and 20 percent skill-building. After that sank in, we had a different mindset and won many games in the closing minutes. We got rid of the old stereotype of rugby players and became a powerhouse in New England."

Players took the sport seriously, spending long afternoons refining their skills and preparing for the weekend battles. After losing a tough semifinal playoff game in 1994, Stephenson looked across the field and saw one of his players in tears. "He said to me, 'I never thought I'd be crying over a rugby game.'"

According to Stephenson, some of the original men's rugby teams at KSC included players from the city of Keene. Later, moving under the student affairs banner, the rugby program became more structured with a four- or five-game fall schedule, along with spring contests. All full-time students, regardless of their skill level, were eligible to come out for the team. With 'A' and 'B' level squads, everyone got a chance to play.

As the men's team picked up popularity on campus, it wasn't surprising that a women's team soon followed. A group that included Mark (Bubba) Lennerton '90, his girlfriend Jen McLane '91, and brother and sister Alex and Kristen MacLeod helped get the team off the ground in 1989.

When several women inquired about joining the men's team, Alex MacLeod wondered what interest there would be in starting a women's program. He quickly got his answer when 50 women showed up for the first day of practice.

"They became more aggressive and did very well," said Lennerton, currently a major in the Marine Corps, who not only teaches but also coaches a nationally ranked rugby team at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

"I think they liked the contact," added MacLeod. "Unless you're on a varsity sport, you don't get that same team camaraderie and opportunity to compete."

"I played rugby for three years and it probably kept me in school," said Karen Johannesen '96, a former team president. "It was where all my friends and social life existed. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life, so I may have thrown in the towel at some point if I hadn't had rugby to keep me here."

Tom Dill '97, the current KSC coach, began his association with the team in 1993 as a trainer. Each year he picks up several players that don't make varsity teams at KSC. "They start playing rugby and they won't go back to the sport they played in high school."

For players like Mo Greene '97, rugby allowed her to keep a family tradition alive. "I grew up in a big football family and my dad was a coach, so when I got to college it was kind of cool that I could play a sport that was full contact and a little bit like football," said Greene, whose husband, Nick Greene, played on the men's team. "I had a few concussions, but I got hurt a lot more cheerleading in high school."

Stephenson points out that rugby in Europe is a sport of the professional classes, and getting to know your opponent after the game is very important. "You might beat the hell out of him on the field, but when you're done you go share a beer with him," Stephenson said. "What happens to clubs is they sometimes substitute quality on the rugby field for craziness and wild parties."

"Unfortunately we have to battle against bad PR because one person may do something wrong and everyone takes a hit for it," said Gary Nelson '95.

Once the contests are over and the final post-game festivities have ended, what remains among the players is an enduring friendship. Many former players along with wives and girlfriends (known as rugger-huggers) come out to renew that friendship at annual alumni games.

Gary Maser '00 recently returned from a trip around the world with some of his former rugby teammates. "Best friends are made right here on the field," he said.

In the fall of 1988, MacLeod and Lennerton pledged a fraternity. MacLeod said that the bond between his brothers in the fraternity and teammates on his rugby team was equally strong. "We just had a great experience together," said MacLeod about his days playing rugby. "It was a brotherhood."

Stuart Kaufman is KSC's sports information coordinator.

The Game of Rugby
Tries, up-and-unders, and scrums

Rugby is said to have been "invented" in 1823 by William Webb Ellis, a student at the Rugby School in England. In a soccer game, Webb Ellis broke the rules by picking up the ball and running with it. The game of rugby then gradually developed independently of the rules of soccer until, in 1871, clubs from around England banded together to form the Rugby Football Union. Today, according to the International Rugby Board, nearly 100 countries compete internationally. New Zealand's All Blacks are currently the top-ranked men's team. The Black Ferns, New Zealand's women's team, are the current World Cup champions.

The game is played 15-a-side, where all players, who are padless, have offensive and defensive responsibilities. A team comprises eight forwards and seven backs. The forwards create field position by crashing the ball upfield. The ball is then released to the backs, who pass it along their line, looking to cut through or outside their opponents. In modern professional rugby, there is little difference in the size and speed of forwards and backs.

Unlike football, the ball is passed back (the backs stand in a staggered line and run on to a pass at speed). The ball can be kicked ahead and chased. A favorite scare tactic is for the ball to be punted high into the air (an up-and-under) and for the opponent catching the ball to be crash-tackled by several chasing players as he or she makes the catch.

When the ball goes out of play, the game is restarted with a high, looping throw-in by a back to a line-up of the opposing forwards. When the ball is passed or knocked forward, the game restarts with a scrum, where the forward packs collide head-to-head in an attempt to win the ball.

A missed pass or fumble is not called incomplete: It is a mistake and an opportunity for the opposing team to grab the ball. The game is played in two 45-minute halves with stoppages only for injuries.

A try, worth five points, is scored when the ball is forced on the ground in the opponent's in-goal area.

A try can be converted by a two-point kick through the opponent's goal posts. The kick is taken at the point from which the try is scored.

A drop goal is a three-point kick where a player must let the ball bounce before kicking it through the opponent's posts.

A penalty goal is a three-point kick through the posts taken with the ball placed on the ground.

–Dave Orsman

New Zealander and KST senior writer Dave Orsman grew up playing cricket instead of rugby but is a rabid fan of the All Blacks.

Click here to listen to Dave Orsman discussing Rugby -- 4.47 MB