Okay, let’s get this out of the way- it wasn’t really real rugby that I played for the first time this week, with scrums and tackles and missing teeth. It was mixed-gender tag rugby, with full sets of teeth, and ladies and men playing together, and lots running but no tackling.
But still, someone ended up in the hospital. Two people actually. And there was blood. Quite a bit of blood. So it counts. I’m now officially an American expat that plays rugby. This rugby-playing American expat will now share his story with you:
Recently, I was invited to join the work mixed-gender tag rugby team, which plays competitive matches once a week in east London. Like most Americans, I had never played before and I didn’t even know the rules, apart from having seen enough on TV to know that it bore some resemblance to American football, but without all the padding and protective gear. And without all the endless breaks in play. And without the cheerleaders.
I had never even held a rugby ball before. I had to ask: “You do call it a ‘ball’ right? Not an Ovenden oval, or a Gloucestershire globe or something like that?” Yes it’s called a ball. It’s big and kind of egg-shaped, half-way between a volleyball and an American football.
They say football/soccer is a gentleman’s game played by ruffians but rugby is a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen. I figured I was a bit of a ruffian and a gentleman, so I would give it a try.
On the evening of the match, I show up early and the rules are explained to me. Don’t pass or throw forward, pass back. Run for the “try line” and if you reach it touch the ball to the ground and you score a “try.” If someone grabs the flag dangling from your waist, you have been “tackled.” Six tackles and you lose possession.
Soon enough, I’m playing. And unlike American football, which I’ve never liked, I find this to be fun. A lot of fun- before I know it, I’m grabbing opponent’s tags, running around like a maniac, throwing and catching and through a bit of dumb luck, I even manage to score a try. Despite my lack of experience, my teammates are supportive and encouraging, and we soon build a big lead in the game.
And then two of our players collide. One, perhaps our best player, finds himself on the ground with a large gash over his eye. There’s a lot of blood. Apparently rugby culture involves shrugging off injuries, so my bleeding colleague keeps saying that he’s fine. Everyone seems only slightly concerned. Everyone except me.
“Dude, your shit is F-U-C-K-E-D-U-P! You have got to get your ass to the hospital. You need stitches. That is a shit-load of blood.” Later my teammates described my reaction in a way that made me feel like Bill Paxton’s character in the movie Aliens, shouting “That’s it man, game over, man! Game over!” as the xenomorphs close in. For a moment I really felt what is apparently a very American impulse- everyone needed a helmet and padding before I would allow anyone else to play any activity involving a ball. It was like we were all kids playing around with BB guns, and only I could see the risk of us shooting our eyes out.
Eventually I calmed down and my colleague went to the hospital for a load of stitches. Our other teammate involved in the collision went to another hospital later in the evening, when his comparatively minor cut wouldn’t stop seeping. Both showed up for work the next day as if their injuries were mere trifles. They were in a good mood, after all, we had won the match 16-6. Bleeding is apparently just part of the game, even in tag rugby.
I was in high spirits as well. I was part of a team that had won a rugby match, despite two injuries. I was dirty and tired, but for the first time in 10 years since moving to this country, I felt just a tiny bit British.
I’ll be back next week. “Game on man, game on.”