Rugby is one of the many athletic-playing options for high school students in Fairfield. Though it might feature some unfamiliar terminology, many American sports fans view it as a rough and tumble sport as much about bumps, bruises and the pride players gain from their battle wounds as anything else.
Players from Fairfield Ludlowe and Fairfield Warde combine efforts on the town's co-op team, and Fairfield Prep also has a long-standing club. The two groups converged for a physical-as-anticipated match on the turf at Ludlowe's Taft Field this past Saturday night, with the co-op squad getting the better of the Jesuits in a 36-17 final.
"The boys set the tone right from the beginning -- didn't give up. They worked as a unit. They executed the game plan perfectly," said Gennaro Gelsi, who coaches the co-op squad along with Bob Elhers and Marc Downes. Gelsi added that the plan was to control the ball and to run it.
Ludlowe/Warde tries (or rugby's equivalent of an American football touchdown) were scored by Jake Garrell, with three, Will Graham, Rafael Garcia and Sean Casey. Prep's tries were scored by Colin Ihfeld, Ben Romero and Charlie Haley.
Teams earn five points for getting the oblong ball (somewhat similar to an American football but bulkier) into the try zone (end zone), but not before placing the ball down on the turf. Kicks through the uprights, following each try, are worth two points. Those are not as automatic as point-after-touchdown attempts in football, since the rugby kicks come from tougher angles and greater distances. Casey converted three of such kicks in the win.
In between the comparable-to-football scoring, the game features some attributes of other sports, including soccer (feet are frequently used to move the ball during scrums, or a rugby term for a mass of players on both sides during game-action restarts).
And there's even a little sprinkle of basketball mixed in. During a lineout, or the means by which a ball lost out of bounds is brought back into play, a designated player from each team is hoisted up on the shoulders of a teammate and they both attempt to catch the thrown-in ball for possession.
Tackling only somewhat emulates football hitting as defenders have to wrap up their opponents to bring them down. There's no hard hitting like in football, a good thing with helmets not part of the equipment package, but there are plenty of players hobbling off the field with banged up this or that, sometimes with blood dripping. Needless to say, the athletic trainers on site for these games have a lot more to do than they do at, say, the average baseball game.
This is not a sport for the fainthearted.
"It's pretty sick. You've got the adrenaline pumping," said Warde junior Joey Warren, explaining that the adrenaline is what gets players through the pain.
"We get banged around a whole bunch," Warren said.
Teammate Kamran Chaudhry, a senior at Ludlowe, played football for his first two years before giving rugby a go.
"One of my biggest regrets is I didn't start when I came into high school," said Chaudhry, adding that he enjoys the fraternity-like/ brotherhood elements of the game.
After these grind-it-out battles, the signs of sportsmanship and camaraderie don't end with the back of the line during handshakes. The opposing teams sit down for a postgame meal and a chat, Chaudhry said.
Warren plays two positions, flanker (the role is to tackle the opponent and to try to take the ball away) and hooker (the role is to hook the ball, using feet, back to teammates during scrums). Chaudhry is a flanker, prop and lock (both among the players who form a row to push during a scrum).
"Right now, we're a work in progress," said Prep coach Frank Decker, whose team trailed 36-5 before getting a pair of late scores to cut some into the deficit.
Andy Hutchison is a freelance reporter