May 2010

RUGBY - Rogues

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: Photography By Anne

It’s the second most popular team sport in the world (it’s played in 110 countries). Founded in 1974, the club that represents the sport on the island is purported to be the oldest continuous sports organization on Hilton Head.

It’s the reason architect Rick Clanton came to Hilton Head in 1978.

Along with his outstanding attorney’s skills, it got current club president, Mitch Thoreson, his job.

It is a game where blood can be spilled, and after the game the “spiller” and “spillie” toast each other at Murphy’s Irish Pub.

Plus, according to club president, Thoreson, you have to be one of three things. “You obviously have to be big, strong or fast. One of those three. Or any combination. It’s kind of like survival out there,” Thoreson said.

The game he loves? The game Rick Clanton still plays, even after seeing his fiftieth birthday come and go?

Rugby.

And if you want to say something cute, like, “Isn’t that the game where 30 guys spend a total of 80 minutes on a field trying to mug each other,” keep it to yourself. The person you say it to could be your attorney, your builder, your bartender, the guy who takes care of your pool, or your personal trainer. One of them might not have your sense of humor. All of the above belong to the Hilton Head Gators, our island’s rugby team.

To understand why you should tread lightly around rugby players, Thoreson described one of his first encounters in college rugby. “It’s a real gut check when you have a 280-pound guy running at you, wanting to run you over. The first few times that happens, you really realize what kind of man you are. When I was in college, I was scared for my life. Now I get kind of a weird grin on my face and get excited about it.”

The “weird grin” is the scary part. Let’s just say that there are many rugby players who play golf, but few (if any) golfers who play rugby.

“Rugby was the reason I moved here,” said Rick Clanton. That was in 1978, the year he graduated from Clemson. “The firm I worked with closed their doors a month after I’d been here. But Lynn [his wife] had a teaching job, so we kind of extended our honeymoon.”

At his Darlington, South Carolina high school, Clanton played all the sports he could; but when he got to Clemson, his only real choice was rugby. It was love at the first tear of his jersey. “You knew who had played before by how torn up their jersey was,” he said.

“At one time it [rugby] was really counter culture. We were kind of the ultimate Frisbee guys of that era. When I played, nobody played until they came to Clemson. Most of those guys on the first 15 when I became a starter were football players who had graduated and just wanted to hang around. There were a couple of professors,” said Clanton. Including himself, there were only five undergraduate students.

The Clemson team came down to Hilton Head to play in a rugby tournament in 1975, organized by the newly formed island rugby team. Clanton remembered the whole team staying in one room at the Adventure Inn. “That’s when Hilton Head was sort of like a continual spring break,” he laughed. When he was offered a job on Hilton Head, he jumped at the chance.

When Clanton talks about rugby, past and present, it’s like listening to a kid describing his first trip to Disney World. It is a thoroughly refreshing experience and his excitement is catching. Clanton is now one of the “old boys,” guys who are 35 and beyond.

At 53 years old and at 170 pounds stretched over a five-foot-ten frame, he’s the oldest player in the club, but he is no longer a regular. “I still play old-boy and big games. But a couple years ago, Lynn asked me to … well, it was time. I feel much better. Given the recovery time. We play every few weeks. Practicing just once a week, I’m not sore. Gordie Howe played hockey until he was in his 50s. In an interview he said, ‘It was like I had the flu all the time. You’re just always sore,’” said Clanton.

He still plays for other old-boy teams, many from other states who come to the area for a game (called a “fixture”) or tournament. The camaraderie that the teams develop over the years is one of the reasons rugby first attracted Clanton and continues to attract. He has made lifelong friendships, both locally and internationally. “We met a guy on a rugby tour from England. Just by letters, we know what happens to them all the time. He’s 86; he was an RAF pilot. I’ve been in touch with him since 1980 when they first came here with a rugby team from England,” Clanton said.

While the rugby club might be Hilton Head’s oldest, it remains a secret to most. Yet looking at a list of past members, some of whom gather at Murphy’s Irish Pub, the rugby club’s main sponsor, every Wednesday night, reads something like an island who’s who: landscape architect and land planner, Perry Wood; photographer, Paul Keyserling; former mayor of Bluffton, George Hayward; former Bluffton Town Councilman and the tallest potter in Bluffton, Jacob Preston; and attorney for the town of Hilton Head, Greg Alford.

It was the rugby network, via attorney, Alford, that got Hilton Head rugby club’s current president, Mitch Thoreson, to the island. Thoreson played rugby. Thoreson was looking for a job. Thoreson now works for Alford.

On rugby, Thoreson said, “It’s gotten me down here; it’s gotten me my job. You can go anywhere in the country, you’re 30 minutes from 30-50 guys who will be your friend, people you can associate with. It’s amazing. If I got a call from anyone who played rugby and wanted a place to stay down here, he’d have a place. I wouldn’t even question it.”

Thoreson, who was to play golf at Emory University, didn’t like the program, and started looking around for alternatives. Someone suggest he try rugby. “I’d heard of rugby but never had any experience with it. It was still sort of emerging then. It’s a lot bigger now. Had no idea what I was doing,” Thoreson said. That was 10 years ago.

After a few practices, he was hooked. He played for Emory, then Mercer when he was at law school, then played with an Atlanta team for a year. “You have to be very fit. In a football game, the player plays 15 minutes. In rugby, everyone’s an offensive player, everyone’s a defense player. They say you run an average of four miles every rugby game. It’s very fitness oriented. Most of our practices revolve around fitness— running. A lot of people don’t realize that until they come out there. You obviously have to be big, strong or fast. One of those three. Or any combination,” said six-foot-three, 200-pound Thoreson.

He explained that the Hilton Head club, a Division 3 team, is part of the U.S.A. Rugby South, and further bracketed down as members of the Georgia Rugby Union. As of this writing, there is a good possibility the team could advance to at least the national semifinals. “Yes, we could be competing nationally,” Thoreson said.

One of the traditions of rugby around the world is when the game is over, to leave it on the field and head for the rugby bar. On Hilton Head, that’s Murphy’s. Thoreson said, “The whole rugby mantra is ‘leave everything on the field.’ In the grand scheme, you’re all playing the same game; you all love the game. I can’t explain it. We’re all best friends. Instant family.”

To watch a rugby “fixture” (game), check out the schedule on the Web site, pitchero.com/clubs/hiltonheadrugbyclub. Or go over to Murphy’s Irish Pub on Wednesday or Thursday nights and get an earful about this grand sport.

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THE GAME

Since most people know little about rugby, here’s a very, very abbreviated explanation of the game. There are 15 players on a side—eight forwards and seven backs. The only person that can be tackled is the player with the ball.

Players pass the ball to each other and run with it until a point can be scored or penalty called. There are no “first downs” and no forward passing, but the ball can be thrown or kicked in all other directions.

Points in rugby are scored by kicking the ball through goal posts, with kicks awarded different points according to the placement of the player or the distance of the kick. Points are also be scored by a touchdown or a penalty kick through the goal posts.

It’s a full contact sport with no padding. The field is called a “pitch.” While you can only tackle the player with the ball, it gets a bit messy, like when the forwards line up for a “scrum,” but that’s too much information already.

Check out our team at www.pitchero.com/clubs/hiltonheadrugbyclub.

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