Friday, August 27, 2004

Rugby club keeps contact the hard way



Click here to e-mail Maggie Downs
Greg Ruther has stumbled onto an excellent way for young professionals to make friends.

First, someone shoves him to the ground by his neck. Then he stands up and pummels the guy in the face. Later, bruised and battered, the two shake hands and share a beer.

Ah, rugby.

The 25-year-old Norwood resident is part of the Wolfhounds Rugby Football Club, a Cincinnati institution that celebrates its 30th anniversary Saturday.

Rugby is like the scruffier cousin of soccer and the demanding father of football - except it's faster, bloodier and doesn't use any of that wimpy padding. Picture soccer where somebody picks up the ball, which looks like an overweight football, and runs with it. And they get to hit people. That's rugby.

In 1974, the Wolfhounds started after local college teams were getting too big.

The first-division men's team formed to give men fresh from playing college rugby - from schools including the University of Cincinnati, Xavier University and Miami University - a chance to keep playing.

Now the players range in age from early 20s to 40s and include all kinds of people, including a chiropractor, a commercial real-estate salesperson and a bar manager.

Ruther's experience extends beyond the Wolfhounds. He was also captain of the Saint Louis University team and has refined his skills overseas with the Bedwas Rugby Football Club in Wales. And through those experiences, he discovered that beyond the line-outs and scrums, a brotherhood is formed.

"There's a focus on competition and camaraderie, whether you're playing here or in Wales or in France," Ruther says. "Politics don't matter. If you're a rugby player, you're accepted."

That's what former coach Brian Brimelow found as well. Originally from England, Brimelow has traveled extensively, joining rugby clubs as he went.

"When you go to a new town, you have 30 instant friends," he says. "You find people from every walk of life within a month of going to a new place."

Here the Wolfhounds practice twice a week for two hours at a time, tearing up the fields on Saturdays. They boast a successful record, going to the Mid-America Championships 17 times and appearing in the Men's National Club Championships Sweet 16 three times.

After practice, the guys hang out at the rugby house, which belongs to the club, across the street. In the wood-paneled basement, the fridge is filled with the basics - beer and ketchup. Rugby photos and jerseys line the walls.

It's here that the friendships are formed, then carried into the game.

As Ruther says, "You bleed together in this game."

The paradox is that rugby looks spectacularly violent but is inherently respectful. The roughness of the contact sport makes sportsmanship and unity a necessity.

The tradition of being gentlemanly transcends all.

"You depend on each other so much," Ruther says. "If someone is stomping on my back, I'm counting on my buddy to be there."

George Perdikakis, 24, of Mason, was a football player until he discovered rugby. He mostly plays for the social aspect - as well as the fact that "chicks dig the bruises."

"You find support on the field," he says. "But what's really unique to rugby is the support you find off the field when you're together as friends."

Patrice Latapy, 41, of Mason, has been in the sport for 36 years. Now, as coach for the Wolfhounds, he thrives on teaching the nuances and style of rugby to the young men of Cincinnati.

He knows that for the Wolfhounds, rugby is more than a game - it's a way of life.

"The sensation you get here, you can't get with any other sport. It's designed for friendship. It's made for camaraderie. You take care of each other," he says.

"The spirit of rugby is pretty special."

E-mail mdowns@enquirer.com




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