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Rugby: a collision sport and a cure for the American football blues

This scrum is going in favor of the Deadbirds.  Photo by Jordan Ferrell
The Deadbirds are in a scrum in a game against the Orlando Rugby Club on Oct. 18.
Photo by Jordan Ferrell

Rugby, as a friend from South Africa most recently described it, is a team sport where you use your shoulder to inflict as much pain as possible to the midsection of your opponent. While this might seem like a brutal and somewhat primitive explanation of the sport, I can assure you it is mostly spot-on. Not to say that it lacks sophistication or is unlike any other contact sport in terms of rules and regulations, but this raw and unadulterated athletic display is best in show.

Sure, hockey is a rough contact sport, but this is Florida where the sun always shines and humidity is as thick as fog. It rains more than it freezes and, besides the recreational center downtown, there isn’t much opportunity for some smash-mouth action on the ice. And, let’s face it, the odds of UNF putting together a football team are about the same as Florida getting snow in January 2015. So, the question remains: what are you doing to scratch that insatiable itch for a bone-jarring contact sport?

UNF Rugby Graphic 2
Graphic courtesy of Facebook.

For some, the answer might be the debatably professional football team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, or maybe backyard wrestling that appears to be popular in some circles right now. But for those of you with no answers and crossed fingers for a collegiate football team here at UNF, your troubles are over. The Deadbirds ,the UNF Rugby Football Club, is here to fulfill the need of American college students to drink beer, yell at referees and watch two teams beat the snot out of each other in the blistering heat for at least an hour.

The Deadbirds are a part of the Florida Rugby Union and have been an established club at UNF since 2003. The Florida Rugby Union is a subdivision that operates under the umbrella of the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO), which is made up of four regions. The Deadbirds fall under Region 2, the Mid-Atlantic South Region, and contend with four other schools in the state – Ave Maria University, Eckerd College, Florida Gulf Coast University and the University of Miami. Much like European football, the divisions and conferences in rugby can get confusing, but don’t let that deter you from the action.

Over the past 11 years, the Deadbirds have racked up several undefeated seasons and have qualified for multiple NSCRO National Championships, most recently traveling all the way to Philadelphia, Pa. earlier this year to compete against teams from around the nation.

This fall season begins a new era for the Deadbirds, who are hoping to build off of a solid foundation that has been laid by previous UNF ruggers over the years. The Deadbirds, like any others sports team, experience a periodic ebb and flow of talent and leadership. Tyler McClain, the club president, said the 2014-2015 season will be a chance for rookies and other new faces to step up, fill some boots and secure a position on the team.

“To be honest, we have lost a lot of people and it’s amazing to see how when you do lose people, you have to come back and fill in those spots,” McClain said. “With a young team, like we are this year compared to last year, it’s great to see how everybody has come together.”

McClain is a UNF sophomore majoring in construction management. This is his second year with the Deadbirds and like some of his younger teammates he has had to step up and earn the spot he currently holds. He was chosen by his fellow ruggers to fill the presidential seat that was empty after his predecessor, Alex Mross, stepped down.

“As a team it definitely is a great building experience to finally fit in when you were once a backup and now it’s a matter of you having to be THE man – you have to be THAT guy on the team now,” McClain said.

Despite having a relatively young team, the Deadbirds are not lacking in the passion department. Several members on the team including Head Coach Richard Alleger, are committed to the semi-professional rugby team here in Jacksonville, known as the Axemenwhen not involved with the Deadbirds.

Alleger was propositioned to be head coach of the Deadbirds in 2011 when the previous coach, Mike “Hammer” Connolly, had to step down after eight powerhouse seasons with the club. Since his arrival, Alleger has done nothing but carry on UNF rugby tradition and push the team to new heights. In his first season at UNF, he took the team all the way to Boulder, Colo. to compete in the NSCRO Division III National Championship where the Deadbirds ended up placing fourth in the nation.

Alleger, UNF alumnus who graduated in 2008, is an original member of the UNF Rugby Football Club. At 29 years old, Alleger doesn’t seem to be slowing down or losing any passion for the sport that has kept him coming back to the university since he graduated six years ago.

“It’s a good life,” Alleger said. He recently took a step back from his career path to continue coaching the Deadbirds and hold down his position on the Jacksonville Axemen. Alleger said watching this club grow and having the opportunity to be a big part of it has been a lot more rewarding than most of his past professions.

A UNF rugger gets ready to release the ball on a pass.Photo by Jordan Ferrell
A UNF rugger gets ready to release the ball on a pass.
Photo by Jordan Ferrell

Alleger is eager to dig into this fall rugby season and explore what this young team can produce. He predicts that this season will be a good test for the Deadbirds as they are lined up to play some bigger schools like Clemson University and the University of South Carolina.

The fall season is a prospective preseason for the Deadbirds. The coaches and officers communicate with other schools and schedule matches as they see fit. This gives the team a chance to take a tour, travel outside the state and face tough opponents that will hopefully give the UNF ruggers an idea of what they will face later on down the line when the tournaments crank up.

Alleger said the rugby community is one like no other. The other rugby teams are very accepting and more than willing to line up games and host matches. The teams tend to be very competitive, but when the games are over they shake hands and then proceed to take part in a ritualistic “drink-up,” which involves comradery, conversation and, of course, beer.

“It’s beautiful,” Alleger said. “You know, in a lot of American sports you tend to hate your competition and there are still guys I hate that I play against, but after an 80-minute battle you should not have any energy left to argue or hate somebody. You have got to respect the fact that the other team showed up to play.”

The Deadbirds are not an established UNF varsity program. They are a club, but most likely none of the men on the team or fans who regularly come out to support them would agree with that statement.

When asked if he thought the team should be a part of UNF Athletics, McClain said, “Yes, without a doubt. We don’t have a football team, but we do have a rugby team and we’ve been to numerous national championships and placed very high in those.”

Unfortunately, rugby is not an extremely popular sport here in the U.S. It is rarely covered on ESPN and, unless you are looking online, you won’t be finding the scores on any news ticker. As far as UNF goes, rugby is relatively new, but it’s been here longer than UNF has been Division I in most, if not all, of its athletic programs.

“At UNF it may seem like we are just a club, but we are a sports team,” McClain said. “We play the big schools. We are playing Clemson this year and South Carolina – big Division I schools.”

With the addition of rugby to the lineup of sports in the 2016 Summer Olympics, there is no doubt that the sport is growing and becoming recognized on a global scale like it never has before.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find any school from Division I to Division II that doesn’t have a men’s or women’s rugby club these days,” Alleger said. “With the inclusion of rugby into the Olympics, it has really brought legitimacy to the sport of rugby – it’s no longer these guys’ dads’ rugby where it was, ‘Let’s drink and see if we can play rugby afterwards.’”

Despite wearing UNF’s logo and representing the university everywhere they play, the general sentiment on the team is that they need more recognition. McClain said not being backed up by the Athletic Department has made it difficult to travel and find fields to play on due to the lack of funding. Both Alleger and McClain are optimistic about the future and feel that in time with hard work and a growing fan base, they could one day be recognized as a varsity sports program at UNF.

“The commitment level is there,” Alleger said in regard to the team’s devotion to the sport. “The amount of money it would cost the school to run a rugby program is 20% of what it would cost to have a football team.”

Recently, some of the bigger schools like Penn State and Brown University are incorporating men’s and women’s rugby into varsity sports to supplement athletic scholarships for other programs that require too much money. A typical rugby team is a fraction of the size of a football program and doesn’t require the transportation of busloads of coaches, trainers and equipment.

In the meantime, the Deadbirds have had to resort to fundraising and local sponsorship to afford their triumphs and travels. Luckily they have found favor among a few local businesses that have continually supported the team by donating money every season. Alumni also play a big part in the fundraising by turning out every season and investing cash and checks into the future of this rugby team.

The rugby community is an interdependent group of people who are always willing to pitch in and help. Not one person on the field is showing up for a paycheck. The players, coaches, referees and announcers show up because they love the game and when you get down to brass tacks – the essence that keeps the meat in the seats – that love is what college sports is all about.

Where football leaves you guessing on those sweaty nights you spend locked in your room dialing up your bookie or hunched over a computer screen desperately making adjustments to your fantasy football lineup, rugby only leaves you wanting more and everybody, from the fans to the players, wins in one way or another.

So get out to the pitch sometime soon and pay respect to these guys who leave it all out on the field every time they play. Traditionally, credit is given where it is owed and this team is overdue.

Photos by Jordan Ferrell

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Email Jordan Ferrell at [email protected]

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