Rugged, raw and steeped in tradition – Rugby takes hold in the Hole

By on February 12, 2013

Rugby hasn’t caught on in the U.S.

Maybe it’s the crude-sounding terminology of a sport that finds steady use for words like “scrum,” “maul,” and “blood bin.” Or perhaps it’s the non-stop action with no timeouts, huddles, or calls to the bullpen that lend themselves so naturally to TV beer commercials. Rugby is a beer commercial. The mass bedlam on the pitch is still poorly understood in America; a bloated ball seemingly added as an afterthought to the ferocity on the field.

It’s hard to find the pretty in rugby. SportsCenter highlights adore artistic and spectacular moments rarely found buried beneath the blood and the mud and the beer. Still, there’s a hardscrabble beauty in rugby, but it’s usually only the boys in the shorts that ever see it. The passion with which they tackle the ethos of a pure and ancient game is estimable.

JH Rugby Football Club in action on their home turf at Alpine Field in the polo grounds south of town.

JH Rugby Football Club in action on their home turf at Alpine Field in the polo grounds south of town.


Rugby takes hold in the Tetons

Take the National Football League. Remove the quarterback and his receivers. Take away the body armor, the huddling, and the cheerleaders. Run the 600-page pro playbook through the shredder. Now you’re getting closer to capturing the rawness of what ruggers call the greatest game on turf. Rugby is to the NFL what UFC is to boxing.

Jay Flaherty is not alone when he calls rugby the “best game on earth.” He founded the Boise Motherlode in 1977. “I think more and more people are respecting the game than they did 30 years ago and it’s growing,” he says. “In the ‘60s, rugby was a counter-culture. We have worked hard to change the image. Unfortunately, the vast American public is just memorized by the gridiron game. But America has been called the sleeping giant.”

Flaherty was around when Jackson Hole first caught “rugby fever” in the late ‘70s. Regional teams from Snake River, Boise (Motherlode), Park City (Muckers), Aspen (Gents), Pocatello (Zebras), and Missoula (Maggots) tangled with a motley crew from the valley bearing the PG-13 name: TWATS (Teton-Wilson Area Touring Side). Their alternate name for polite company, TITS (Teton International Touring Side), wasn’t much better.

Mike “Junior” Chastain helped form Jackson’s original rugby team along with Bryan Tarantola. They played their matches on Paul Von Gontard’s polo grounds south of town. Tarantola remembers the period fondly, “We had a lot of fun, drank a lot of beer, sang a lot of songs.”

“Rugby is the best game in the world,” Chastain says. “You have to be able to do everything: kick, run, tackle properly. There are no timeouts. You’ve got to be in great condition.”

About the time Jackson was getting its first taste of real football, Brian “Butter” Butler was learning the game at Wisconsin in 1983. When he arrived in Jackson, interest in the sport had waned and the local club was gone. Butler hooked up with New Zealander Dave Cadenhead and the two put rugby back on its feet in 1990 starting with a surprise victory over Laramie by a ragtag bunch of hoons just learning the game.

Rugby culture

Ask any rugger why he took to the sport and he’ll wax philosophical about off-pitch values like honor, integrity, and camaraderie. The game is just the game, and players don’t begin keeping score until it’s over.

“The thing that attracted me to rugby was it was a kind of an extension of a fraternity,” Flaherty says. “You go out there and beat the hell out of each other for 80 minutes but at the end of the game you sit down with your brothers and all animosity is left on the field.”

Cadenhead agrees and adds that the sport is mired in tradition like the placing of utmost importance on host clubs treating visiting sides with hospitality during a tournament. “Rugby is about camaraderie,” he says. “After the match is over it’s all about fellowship; probably more so than the game. We stick together as a team and then bond with the opponent like an armistice after a battle. It’s always been that way.”

The rugger's bond runs deep.

The rugger’s bond runs deep.

The game outside the game – so important to rugby’s originator nations like New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, and the island nations – is about respecting the opponent out of respect for the game. The extreme physicality of the sport exacts mutual reverence. And even American athletes are buying in, craving that aspect of rugby.

Simonius Jager, one of a handful of transplanted kiwis playing for the Jackson Hole Rugby Football Club, thinks his U.S. teammates get it. “There is that camaraderie, that bond, the fraternity here in America. It was a surprise to see it in Jackson Hole, Wyoming,” he says. “Maybe it’s because you are in close, unlike American football where you get more one-on-one play. In rugby, we’re all in there trying to get someone off our mates.”

None of the major four sports popular in America embraces the honor rugby demands. Hockey comes closest. Individual efforts and glory are so admired today it’s created a league of prima donnas in every sport. There is no team in “I.”

“They say football is a hooligan game played by hooligans. Soccer is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans. Rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen,” Flaherty says.

That’s not to say rugby is no longer about louts who get black-out drunk after pounding on each other during a contest. Flaherty, a confessed ‘enforcer,’ often displayed the mulish but noble nature ruggers have toward violence. They forgive easily, but never forget.

“I remember one guy hurt one of my teammates. Broke his leg so bad he never played again,” Flaherty recalls. “I waited two years until we played him again in Sun Valley. After the game he shows up at a party all cut up and asked, ‘What did you do that for?’ We have long memories. I remember everyone whoever hurt me or cheapshotted me. You let it go after the game but if I ever see you on the pitch again, watch out. I’ll take the boots to you. I had no compunction about doing that whatsoever.”

Billy Oppenheimer during a break in the action in Las Vegas.

Billy Oppenheimer during a break in the action in Las Vegas.

Injury and intimidation are still part of the game. New Zealand’s national team the All Blacks, the NY Yankees of rugby, have been performing a pre-game war chant called the Haka since 1888. Called the greatest ritual in world sport, the fearsome display is meant to energize the All Blacks by sapping their opponent’s will to compete.


Late on a Monday night, 15 Jackson ruggers paced through their final practice before heading to an international tournament in Las Vegas. Cleated tracks were sprinkled amongst the usual hoof prints on the floor of the Heritage Arena as ballers learned the finer points of the game. After a few rather benign drills, Cadenhead announced a more contact-oriented exercise. “We are going to be doing things now that might annoy you, so everyone keep your temper in check,” he warned.

Cadenhead and Butler explained some of the nuances of the relatively new incarnation of rugby called “sevens.” While the classic game of rugby calls for 15 players on each side and two 40-minute halves, streamlined sevens play features seven players on a team with two seven-minute halves.

“It’s like removing the offensive and defensive lines from football,” Butler says of a game some purists call Rugby Lite.

The open game is dominated by speed. Sevens players look less like the typical cauliflowered ear, bent-nose forwards most are used to seeing and more like track-and-field athletes. One to One Wellness owner and rugby player Scott “Smitty” Smith designed a workout regimen tailored at creating more lithe muscle and endurance the players would need.

“We’ve been doing high-intensity speed and strength stuff with high heart rate,” Smith says. “We started three months ago and are now seeing some good results. We had one guy lose 17 pounds of fat and another add 13 pounds of muscle.” Teammate Brad Walsh says it was the most intense workout he’s ever done.

JH Rugby Football Club practices in the Heritage Arena prior to embarking on inaugural trip to Las Vegas tourney.

JH Rugby Football Club practices in the Heritage Arena prior to embarking on inaugural trip to Las Vegas tourney.

In a game with more finesse, Butler stressed defending speed to the outside during Monday’s practice. “We learned in the 10s (a modified game with 10 players on each side) in August that we tend not to cover the edges against faster players,” he said. “It’s OK to be a little soft and surrender 30 yards. Just don’t get beat around the corner.”

Sevens rugby spreads the players out more. Moving the ball toward a sideline, by passing or running, creates gaps and cutback opportunities for ball carriers to score a “try” – the rugby equivalent of a touchdown. It requires teamwork, but at a certain point fast players can’t be ashamed to take off and run for the goal line.

“Don’t just throw that shit away,” Butler yells at his teammates after seeing too many careless passes. “And don’t be afraid to be a greedy muthafucka.” The mantra for sevens, at least with the two JHRFC sides named the Moose and the Beavers, is to remember to be a ‘greedy muthafucka.’ The reasoning is that tries are often the result of a faster player leaving his teammates and everyone else behind as he sprints for paydirt

After a two-hour session, Butler and Cadenhead called the group together for some final thoughts.

Butler said, “We’ll be going down there super fit but not necessarily ‘rugby smart.’ It will be real scrappy out there.”

“But we have cohesion. We have heart. We stick together,” Cadenhead added.

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Video by Mary Grossman; footage by Jake Nichols, photos by Mary Grossman


Parking lot

Last Wednesday, at high noon in the parking lot of Albertsons, a blackjack lucky 21 ruggers waited to board a bus bound for Salt Lake to catch a flight to Vegas. Endless cases of Rolling Rock were shuttled aboard as players nipped off a bottle of rotgut whiskey that made the rounds. A makeshift urinal was fashioned from a funnel and tube at the front door. The club’s med kit was checked for essentials: a few butterflies, Vaseline, one roll of gauze, and a pregnancy test kit.

Last minute tweaks were made to the diesel motor as the rest of the ruffians in blazers kicked around the Gilbert football. A few grocery shoppers stopped to wish them luck. Most steered well-clear of the ruck.

Cadenhead, who was pretty much footing the bill for all that wanted to go, said his band was fortunate to get both the A and B teams in the invitational. “They are selective about who they let in,” he said. “We slipped under the wire because they saw the Moose won the Wyoming championship. They don’t know that state champs around here doesn’t mean a great deal. So we at least have to go down there and show up. If we get cleaned out badly we probably won’t be able to go back next year.”

The Moose rugby club defeated the Gillette Prairie Fire and the Speed Goats from Riverton last September, claiming an unofficial state championship for the second straight year.

Results from Las Vegas: The Moose side went 2-1 on the first day but had trouble scoring on day two. The Beavers went winless in three tries on Thursday but faced extremely stout competition including a Melbourne team that won it all.

“We started a little unorganized – the different game of sevens proved a challenge,” Butler said. “But we figured it out and won a couple of good matches.”

Most importantly, aside from a few shoulder tweaks, everyone returned home healthy and with some newly-gained experience.


About Jake Nichols

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