In rough-and-tumble rugby, game is the thing


The competition, the camaraderie , and especially the game, keep the over-35 Old Boys team rumbling

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) – Blair Downie tackled the Mad River player, took the ball and carried it a few steps toward the goal, where he was swarmed and tackled. An informal ruck of struggling, shoving players formed instantly over him, trying to get the ball.

Later, Downie could recall the ruck, though not the last man to get off him, a fellow Albany Knickerbocker left kneeling on his chest as play moved on. Two rucks later, Albany scored.

“I’ll play till I’m 50, if I can move, because I just love it,” the 43-year-old computer programmer said. The hourlong game with 30 players was punctuated by hundreds of tackles, dozens of rucks and formal scrums and several scores.

Others on the over-35 Albany Knickerbockers Old Boys team echoed the sentiment, saying they like the competition, the camaraderie – and especially the game. Many have played for two decades, though their ranks have thinned slightly.

“We’re just getting older,” said Downie, the team’s coordinator. They have 20 to 25 players, down from 30 a few years ago. For some games they struggle to field a team of 15. Fewer younger players on the club side are staying to make the transition to the Old Boys, he said.

USA Rugby’s statistics on old boys are slightly sketchy – only about 200 registered players and 16 “social clubs” – since many don’t register as such, spokeswoman Colleen Krueger said. The 2005 national data showed the sport itself growing 15 percent annually the previous four years, with the biggest spike in youth teams, attributed partly to children of rugby players.

The sanctioning group reported 62,000 registered members, but estimated 200,000 players and said there were 1,500 clubs, 700 college and 600 high school teams in the United States.

In their regular-season closer last fall, Albany loaned five players to Mad River – a Division 3 club team from Vermont. The game was close, with Mad River winning by a point. Afterward, both sides shared beer and pizza and watched Albany’s later club games under a cold drizzle. Their skin showed red welts when they peeled off jerseys. Some players had gotten up slowly after hard hits, but everybody got up.

Pete Sand said he’d probably feel OK on Sunday. “Monday, it’ll be, “Oh God,”‘ he joked. The 49-year-old manufacturing supervisor from Saratoga had played rugby since college at Brockport State, where he also played football.

“It looks like a lot of chaos to the naked eye,” Sand said. “It is a fun game to play.”

Each team has eight forwards, who collectively push against each other in formal scrums. One side’s scrum halfback puts the ball in, then both sides try to hook and control the ball with their feet.

When the ball comes out to one side, that team’s seven backs try to run or kick it downfield for a score. Unlike football, blocking for the runner and forward passing are illegal. Anyone can carry the ball and score.

Players tackled have to release the ball. Unless the referee blows the whistle for an infraction or the ball goes out of bounds, play is continuous.

“I’d never done a sport where you hit people,” said Dan Pollay, a 35-year-old tax auditor who was a runner and played volleyball but had started rugby only a year earlier. “It takes a lot of getting used to.”

Like Pollay, 56-year-old Bill Zedaker also played wing, the back nearest a sideline. The computer analyst for the state comptroller’s office was a scrum half at the Air Force Academy 30 years ago and returned to the game in 2004. “It’s taken two years to get my legs back,” he said.

There are only a few old boys teams in the region – one in White Plains, another in Connecticut, and one or two from Boston, Downie said. They fill their schedule against teams without age restrictions.

The Albany Knickerbockers Rugby Football Club welcomes new and even inexperienced players. For the Old Boys, it costs $85 a season. They practice one evening a week, usually touch rugby. Players said there are few serious injuries, though Zedakar broke a rib falling on a ball and this spring another player’s leg was broken on a hard tackle. There are few fights, though inappropriate use of hands can lead to a few punches.

Some players wear soft caps, mouth guards, soft shoulder pads or electrical tape wrapped like black headbands around their ears.

“They’re a pretty fit bunch of guys with their various and sundry braces and chiropractor appointments,” Darcy Downie joked, having watched her husband play since he was in graduate school at RPI. “Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.”

She recalled one game in which her even-tempered husband got angry when a younger opponent insulted him. “He said, “Get out of my face, old boy.’ That was a bad thing to say. The next play, Blair lifted him up by the collar and threw him down. He said, “Who’s your old boy now, you punk?”‘

The old boys say the game keeps them young. The club created a T-shirt a few years ago: “You don’t stop playing because you get old. You get old because you stop playing.”

AP-ES-05-11-06 1913EDT