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Rugby In Hartford

Teams Are Tight-Knit Social Units That Play Together, Drink Together

April 5, 2007
By JOANN KLIMKIEWICZ, Courant Staff Writer

Fresh out of LaSalle University, Michael Byrne found himself in unfamiliar territory when he landed his first post-graduation job in Hartford two years ago. With no family ties or connections outside of work, things looked socially grim in this strange new place Byrne now called home.

He considered sussing out a local rugby team, figuring he'd find an outlet in the rough-and-tumble sport he fell for in college. Then he reconsidered it. Arriving to work at Phoenix Investment Partners with a black eye on a Monday morning might prove an unwise career decision.Hartford and rugby. In spite of his professional concerns, Byrne typed those words into a search engine.

Within weeks, he found himself standing with cleated-feet on a muddy field, socks to his knees, shaking hands with the players who would become his closest friends.

"They become your family, as well," says Byrne, 24, and now president of the Hartford Wanderers Rugby Football Club.Hartford and rugby. Who'd have thought the pairing would have a history that is decades strong and counting, smack in an American culture where kids accustomed to swinging baseball bats in their backyards wouldn't quite know what to do with a funny-looking, oblong rugby ball.

But there they are on a Tuesday evening, a swarm of rugby players practicing under a golden Hartford skyline as the sun begins to set over Colt Park.

"We've got a lot of new faces," coach Daniel Lloyd Dionne Jr. says at the start of practice, among the first of the spring season that will get the team ready for the more competitive fall schedule. "Some of them, we don't even know their names yet."

There have been a lot of names and faces in the 41 years since the Wanderers planted their cleats in Hartford. An amateur club begun by like-minded post-collegiate athletes, it's grown into one of the premier men's teams on the East Coast, even supplying the U.S. national team with a few members over the years.

But why should the boys have all the fun? Not content to watch from the sidelines, the wives and girlfriends of the Wanderers wanted a team of their own. And so was born, 10 years after the men began, the Hartford Wild Rose Women's Rugby Football Club.

Together, the Division II teams are building on their rich traditions. They're carrying on the tight-knit social network they say is unique to rugby, that bridges folks from all walks and abilities and ages into one big dysfunctional, roughhousing family.

And they're aiming to help rugby thrive in a challenging setting. Forget that it remains a misunderstood sport on this side of the pond. But the story of Hartford rugby, the players say, is the story of Hartford itself. Recruiting can be difficult, as top players from area colleges often move back home or seek the glitzier skylines of New York City and Boston.

Consider that the New England Rugby Football Union, of which both teams are members, lists seven Connecticut club teams on its website. Massachusetts boast three times that.

Still, Hartford has made a name for itself. Both the Wanderers and the Roses are among the longest-running teams in New England. Both have seen a healthy swell of new players this season, attributed to stepped up recruiting efforts. Last year, a U.S. rugby beat writer unofficially ranked the Wanderers second among Division II teams in the country.

The two Hartford teams aren't directly affiliated, but they do come out and support one another. (Roses coach Rick Brainerd also plays for the Wanderers.) And while the original spousal connection has faded, the occasional romance still buds between a Rose and a Wanderer.

"It's like instant family," Katie McGurn, 31 and a Roses captain, says between sips of beer at a packed post-practice outing with her rugby mates - a regular team affair at the Federal Cafe, a downtown Hartford bar and a team sponsor.

"With rugby, you either love it or you leave it. There's not a lot of in between," says McGurn, a teacher at South Windsor High School. She's played rugby for 14 years, about a decade with the Roses. "It takes a lot of commitment. A lot of physical endurance."

It's a tough sport, a contact sport played with an odd-shaped ball, where bodies pile on top of bodies, and most easily described as a hybrid of soccer and football. Thirty players overtake a field at once, going at a steady clip in two 40-minute halves.

The common misconceptions?

No, this isn't that game where you play with a "stick." (That's called lacrosse, people.) Yes, they have all their teeth. No, they don't regularly come home bloodied and broken. And yes, the women do play other women.

But it's not as savage as one might think. In fact, the Hartford players routinely refer to it as a gentlemanly sport - a game where opposing teams grind each other to the ground on the field but, at the sound of the whistle, head straight to the local bar for the home team to buy everyone food and drink.

"It's a simple game, as long as you know it's simple and break it down in your mind. Otherwise, you'll get lost out there," player Stewart Wyatt, 35, says during last week's practice. But no drills for him today. He's charged with watching 2-year-old daughter Emma, fussing from atop his shoulders as he watches his teammates from the sidelines.

An engineer who moved to the area from Australia five years ago, Wyatt was familiar with rugby but never played a lick. After seeing the teams training in the park, he decided to give it a try last year.

So far, so good, he reports. It's good exercise, preferable to running solitary on a treadmill. And it's a way to blow off steam - on and off the field.

Does his wife ever come out to a game?

Not so much, Wyatt says as Emma, fussing from his shoulders, plants her hands into his curly mop of hair. "She sort of worries more about the bruises I come home with," he laughs.

But if social interaction and physical activity is what these players seek, why rugby - a sport to which they easily volunteer eight or more weekly hours to and upward of $600 of their own money? (Costs are offset a bit with sponsorship from area companies like Olde Burnside Brewery).

But still, what about a nice, safe softball league?

"Everyone I've met that plays rugby has an unparalleled passion for the game," says Byrne. "I think it's because it's a choice you make to go out for it. It isn't a father or a coach saying you have to stick with baseball. Rugby is pretty much all from within."

At the same time, he says, it's the quintessential team sport.

And Sandi Genna, 27, has tried just about every team sport.

"Rugby is the only sport that stuck," Genna, also an assistant rugby coach at Trinity College, explains as she and her teammates, fresh from practice, convene at the Federal Cafe. "Every rugby game is so different."

You feel it the day after a game, she says. You've worked hard, and you know it.

McGurn says she felt welcome from day one on a team where nobody cares what you look like, what you wear, what you do for a living. You put on a uniform, and check everything else at the door. You're another in a family of rugby players.

And as she talks, at the back of the bar is a clutch of her teammates, all still clad in their practice sweats, gearing up for yet another round of beer pong. The teachers and engineers and analysts are undistinguishable from each other as they laugh and dance to cheesy '80s hip-hop, kidding one another and knock- ing back beers until midnight.

Both teams recruit year-round and welcome new players of all levels. For more information on the Wild Roses, visit HartfordRoses.org. For information on the Wanderers, go to http://www.hartfordwanderers.org

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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