As rugby returns to Olympics, local team offers a primer.

via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Scrums and the original tough mudders will be returning to the Olympics for the first time in 92 years.

Rugby was featured in the Summer Games from 1900 to 1924 before it was dropped because rowdy fans invaded the field after the United States beat France in ’24 and because of insufficient interest in the sport from other countries.

The countries represented in the Rio Olympics will field men’s and women’s teams of seven players rather than the more widely known 15-man teams.

Locally, the amateur Milwaukee Barbarians formed in 2012 and compete in Division 1 of the USA Rugby League against other clubs from all over the U.S. At a recent practice at Menomonee Valley Community Park, the Barbarians explained their game, the differences between sevens and 15s, and what to look for in the upcoming Olympics competition.

One thing is clear right away: There’s something familiar about rugby. Teams march down the pitch (the field) with the ball on offense and attempt to cross the try line (goal line) to score.

‘Rugby came from soccer; and basketball and football came from rugby,’ said Zach Albert, a player-manager. ‘The touchdown in football came from rugby, because when you score a ‘try’ you have to physically touch the ball down. In basketball, there’s a jump ball to start the game; rugby uses a tip-off to start a game as well.’

Players advance the ball in three ways:

By running.

By passing to a teammate, as long as the pass travels backward or behind them as it leaves their hands.

By punting the ball forward.

Rugby is played traditionally with 15 players per team in an 80-minute game. But there’s also the seven-man game with two 7-minute halves, and this model is better for the limited schedule of the two-week Olympic Games.

‘If you play 80 minutes, you can’t play more than every four or five days,’ Barbarians president Vic Drover said.

Fans can still expect to find sevens rugby very appealing.

‘With eight less players, it’s a lot more like a three-on-three basketball tournament,’ Albert said. ‘It’s a lot quicker scoring and faster pace on the same size pitch. It’s a lot more exciting because there’s a lot more scoring. There’s a lot of sprinting.’

The key positions of fly half and center usually feature the first receivers and the best players on the team. The defense can tackle, but the move looks more like a wrestling take down, and the rules prohibit any hits to the head. Players wear cleats and mouth guards but no other protective gear consisting of hard plastic material — no helmets, shin guards or cups. Even the buttons on the jerseys are rubber.

‘It’s like American football, but everybody gets to touch the ball,’ said Milwaukee Barbarians sevens co-coach Ewan O’Donnell. ‘And it doesn’t stop.

‘With football, you have stop, start, stop, start. You have TV timeouts, injury breaks, commercial breaks. With rugby it’s constant fast action.’

Like soccer…

‘It’s like soccer, but it’s played by men,’ O’Donnell said mischievously.

Players are conditioned, strong and exceptionally team-oriented. Competitors will draw blood during games and then unite in a postgame celebration.

‘We’ll actually count assists more than tries,’ O’Donnell said. ‘If you put your buddy in a position to score, that’s more valuable than just taking the ball up and scoring.

‘We smash the (expletive) out of each other on the field, but we make a point of buying a few jugs of beer for our opposition after the game. It’s a brotherhood, but it’s deeper than that. You play the most brutal team sport on earth, but you are confident and fearless because you are surrounded by guys willing to put themselves in harm’s way to help you.

‘The fraternal camaraderie part of the game is a great draw for players.’

‘I’ve traveled the world and made friends everywhere through this sport,’ said Ben Smith, a Barbarian who turns 40 in September. He took up the game at age 24. ‘It’s a great game to watch.’

Of course, he’s also suffered broken ribs, a lacerated liver, concussions and numerous other breaks and sprains while playing rugby. A skilled workman, he got out of the tree business because he had too many close calls, but he has no plans to give up rugby.

The Barbarians were formed by the merger of two older clubs, but rugby teams in the area started popping up in the late 1960s and ’70s, said Albert. College clubs came in the 1980s and then high schools arrived in the ’90s; Albert’s dad helped start the high school team at Muskego in 1997.

The Barbarians have to spread their 15s schedule over the fall and spring, because it’s just too cold to play here in the winter months the way some other teams do. The sevens are playing now. That means there’s rugby being played almost all year round. It’s a commitment for the players, some who train like pros even if they don’t draw a salary.

To play wing for the Barbarians, Keenan Leahy, 19, of Elkhorn, lifts weights at a performance gym six days a week and also runs 6 miles a day. He runs an 8-minute mile at that distance.

‘I really want USA Rugby to start getting more popular and have people notice it,’ Leahy said. ‘It’s a great sport.’

Fans will have that opportunity on July 9 at Milwaukee’s Veterans Park, when the Barbarians will host the largest rugby tournament in the Midwest, the Lakefront 7s, which will draw 125 teams.

Jeremy Petfalski, a veteran for the Barbarians, has played in the Lakefront 7s every year since 2002.

‘I’ve played in a lot of other 7s tournaments but Lakefront 7s is by far the best,’ Petfalski said. ‘They have divisions for men’s, women’s and every age and skill level from high school, college, social, competitive and elite. They have six fields running all day and it organized extremely well, and it always runs very smooth.

‘It’s always run during Summerfest so it gives people an extra reason to come up and make a weekend of it.’

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Vic Drover, president of the Milwaukee Barbarians, provided a few common terms in rugby:

SIN BIN: This is the term used to describe the ‘penalty box’ in rugby. There is no box however. At the local level, a player sent off for a serious infraction of the laws may have to spend 10 minutes behind the opposition goal posts. At the professional and international level, they usually sit in a small chair on the sidelines.

HOOKER: This is a position. The player is in the middle of the scrum and is responsible for using his feet to win position of the ball: they ‘hook’ the ball with their feet.

TEST OR TEST MATCH: A match between two countries.

TOUCH (not to be confused with noncontact rugby): In rugby, the sideline of the field is called the touch line. When a ball leaves the field (carried over by a player, kicked out, etc.), the ball is said to be ‘in touch’.

TRY: A ‘touch down’ in rugby is called a ‘try’. In rugby, the ball not only has to ‘cross the plane’ but must physically be pressed downward and touch the ground. If both those things happen, a try is awarded.



Pool A:United States, Fiji, Argentina, Brazil. Pool B:South Africa, Australia, France, Spain. Pool C:New Zealand, Great Britain, Kenya, Japan.


Pool A:United States, Australia, Fiji, Colombia. Pool B:New Zealand, France, Spain, Kenya. Pool C:Canada, Great Britain, Brazil, Japan.

Vic Drover
Vic Drover

Vic has a long history in and around the sport of rugby both in Canada and the US. He has played for and started numerous clubs (Vandal's RFC, Strathcona Druids, Suffolk Bull Moose, West Side Harlequins, Milwaukee Barbarians, Hamilton Girls Rugby), and served many roles over the years at all administrative levels. Vic joined the Harlequins in 2007 and remained an active club member through the transition to the Barbarians. These days, he spends his rugby time playing tag rugby and touring with the Old Boys, keeping the club website updated, helping organize the Lakefront 7s, and fundraising.

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