By Patrick Murphy
Formerly an athletic afterthought, the Macalester men’s rugby team is emerging as a formidable club team this spring. After a successful tournament two weeks ago and a big win against a top men’s club team in the Twin Cities last weekend, the Mac ‘ruggers’ are shaping up to be one of the best squads the school has ever produced. Earlier this week, I had the chance to talk to four of the leaders of the team, Robert Strickling ’12, Geo Chester ’13, Hugh Kelley ’12, and Ajuawak “Aj” Kapashesit ’13. TMW: How would you describe rugby in one or two sentences? RS: Rugby is the most electrifying sport on two feet. GC: It’s a phenomenal game and a great team sport. HK: As a sport, its a game of strategy executed with an outstanding level of fitness seen in varying types of physical talents. You have to be able to run like a soccer player but still hit like a lineman. AK: Take thirty guys who aren’t afraid to get dirty, have tiger’s blood that they ain’t got time to bleed and put an oddly shaped ball in the middle of them. It’s about as awesome as watching a unicorn ride a golden surfboard over a tidal wave, blindfolded. TMW: What drew you to the sport? RS: I think number one is the camaraderie. Also, it’s the definition of a team sport. No one player, no matter how good, can dominate a game. He needs the other 14 guys to step up in order for the team to be successful. GC: I just saw some of the guys playing it and thought, “That looks like a blast.” So, I tried it the next practice and was hooked. HK: I was looking for a more laid-back attitude towards competition as an alternative to the cutthroat culture of rowing during high school. AK: I liked the idea of running with the ball and dealing with people trying to tackle me. Also, the idea of dishing out some of that punishment was intriguing. It’s easy to pick up, and the best part about it is that although rugby is a pretty violent sport, once the whistle blows and the game is over, the guy who wanted to kill you a few moments ago is now like your best friend. In rugby, all the beef, all the malice, is left on the field. It’s not personal, it’s the game, and everybody knows it. TMW: What’s the team chemistry like? RS: Team chemistry is awesome. We have a very young team, which makes it easy for guys to bond off the field. We often eat at Cafe Mac together after practices and games, which helps. Although we do get some long stares for showing up caked in mud… GC: We are really close. I wouldn’t say there is any teammate that I don’t enjoy having on the team. HK: Unique. We’re pretty diverse interest-wise. The sport unites us across majors, backgrounds, and talents. AK: A huge chunk of our players are from the class of ’13, so we’ve all known each other since we first got to campus. On the field and off the field, we’re a pretty tight bunch of guys. TMW: What does it take to be a successful rugby player? RS: Heart. Miles and miles of heart. In rugby, you have to look at the guy standing across from you and know that you want it more. GC: You have to love the contact and play with high intensity. Crazy beats big. HK: I think that a desire to compete, as opposed to only winning is important. You might have a guy who isn’t the best athlete, but if you’re willing to test yourself physically and mentally you’ll do well and become a better athlete in the process. AK: The saying goes: “Crazy beats big,” which in a lot of cases is actually true, but I’d trade ten crazy players for one smart one in an instant. The ability to read the field- See the holes on defense, know when to pass and when to go into contact, and just being able to keep your cool in a high stress situation is all critical. TMW: What are some of your favorite team traditions? RS: We always huddle before and after games & practices to sing “Scotland the Brave.” It was pretty cool until Olaf stole the idea and didn’t even bother to learn the lyrics. Also, there is a rugby tradition of giving out lots of nicknames. For instance, they call me El Capitan and Hugh is known as Pickles. Mine’s self-explanatory, but Hugh’s is a story for another time. GC: Team songs. Rugby just wouldn’t be the same without all of the songs. HK: Socials with the opposing side after games are fun because in other sports you wouldn’t normally have a chance to even get to know your opponents. And I wouldn’t say it’s a tradition yet, but I think the Day of Caring (day when the team gives back to the community) has a lot of potential. AK: Nicknames are a huge tradition for us- a player does something ridiculous, has a specific trait, or just says the wrong thing with the right people around, and next thing you know they get some bizarre handle that they go by on and off the field. TMW: What’s been your favorite moment since joining the rugby team? RS: My favorite moment actually came last weekend. The team spent all morning doing community service with the Project for Pride in Living. We were moving lots of rocks to make room for mulch that needed to be put down. That afternoon, we played a game against the St. Paul Pigs who are one of the best men’s rugby teams in the state. For the first time since I have been at Macalester, we had more players than jerseys. On top of that, we took a 7-5 lead at halftime and were able to hold onto it, tallying a huge victory. GC: I would have to say last year at the St. Cloud Tournament when Ming (Ming Yen ’13), after having not been a great tackler earlier in the season, made a huge hit on a guy twice his size and brought him down ten meters from the goal line. HK: Nick Skenderian ’13 and I had a beautifully executed try at the tournament two weeks ago in Nebraska. AK: Yacoub Shomali ’13, aka. “Mr. Current Events,” played a glorious 17 minutes in his first game, we’re very proud of him for that. But the reality is that there are just too many great moments to pick one as a favorite. I know that after my playing days are over I’ll be able to look back at our accomplishments and our experiences on and off the field as a team and feel pride. TMW: How have you seen the team evolve since joining? RS: I first joined the team my freshman year after not making the baseball team. Back then, we were always struggling to get enough players to field a full team and often had to borrow players from the other team to have enough. The team wasn’t very close socially, so we never really completely meshed. Since then, we’ve grown a lot in size and are much closer socially. There has been a distinct change in the team’s mentality. GC: We lost a lot of really good seniors since I started playing, but we have literally almost doubled our numbers and are getting better each game. AK: Before I came to Mac, I didn’t know anything about rugby. And I know I wasn’t the only one- there are quite a few kids who didn’t have rugby experience prior to this, but we’ve all come a long way. This semester our numbers have made such an improvement that we had a full bench for our last game, which was a huge weight off of a lot of players. TMW: What would you say to someone who’s interested in joining the team? RS: Do it. We are always welcoming new players to the team. The great thing about rugby is there is a position for everyone. If you’re short or tall, fast or slow, big or small, there is a position and a role for you. The two things I always hear from people interested in joining are “I am too small to play rugby” and “Rugby is too dangerous.” We have some pretty small guys on our team who have been making big contributions this season. As for the danger, it’s actually a lot safer than some other contact sports because we don’t use any hard padding. So, when you hit someone, you are only hitting their body, you’re not hitting hard plastic that might be able to hurt you. GC: Just show up to a practice (4:30 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday), and see if you like it. AK: Come out and try it, we’re a pretty chill bunch and we’ll work you right into the rotation. We’re a sociable team, so even if you don’t get all the rules and fundamentals of the game right away, you’ll get a few laughs out of it to begin wit
h. We don’t expect everyone to fall in love with the sport, but a lot of people do. You’re never going to know until you try. The rugby team will look to build on their early success this weekend when they host top teams from around the state in a six-team tournament. The games will take place on the football field from 1:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Macalester will take on rival Carleton at 2:00 p.m.