A Gentlemen’s Sport

BY Brian Freskos

To the untrained eye the game of rugby is a bunch of people beating one another senseless to control an oval-shaped leather ball for the purpose of moving it inch by hard-fought inch down an often mud-filled field toward the oppositions goal line. There are no pads for the players and no timeouts if youre injured (when youre injured) you have two minutes to get better.

But to those who understand the game rugby remains what it has been since the 19th century when 16-year-old William Webb Ellis attending school in Rugby England picked up a soccer ball and ran with it during a match a gentlemens sport.

“Rugby in this country started in the 1920s at Harvard and Princeton ” says Calvin McGowan founder of the Cape Fear Rugby Club. “When I first started most of the players were lawyers doctors and people out of graduate school.”

McGowan now 67 claims to have brought rugby to the Port City. A chemical engineer he moved to the area in 1974 from Charlotte to help build a pharmaceutical plant. When he arrived he was saddened to discover that the area lacked a rugby club and decided to form his own.

He placed an ad in the Star-News on September 28 1974 asking people to meet him in Memorial Park on Shipyard Boulevard if they were interested in playing rugby. Three people showed.

“We kept recruiting ” McGowan says “and then we started picking up students.”

The students came from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) and East Carolina University.

In the 1980s UNCW athletic director Bill Brooks invited the club to play on the UNCW fields and to use the school facilities. The club remained on campus for more than five years and continued to grow attracting members from all over the area. McGowan was happy to have them.

“Rugby doesnt turn anybody away ” McGowan says. “We have some real good athletes and some not so good ones but nobody is ever asked to leave. Well make you feel at home well make you feel welcome and if you want to play the game well let you play; or if you just wanted to come watch that would be fine too.”

By 1993 the club acquired a plot of land now called Fly Trap Downs (near the corner of 21st and Chestnut streets). It was a donated landfill and the club cleaned it up stuck goal posts on each side erected a shelter and picnic tables drew in the lines and had its own field that is now a pristine masterpiece where their fans come to cheer them. And the Cape Fear Rugby Club has plenty of fans.

Aside from the excitement of the game what contributes to the extreme popularity of rugby is the companionship that it offers.

“The sport attracts people ” says McGowan. “Its probably the fastest growing game in the country. Its got great camaraderie its different from every other sport. Ive played other sports like basketball and baseball and football. After a few years I dont remember who was on those teams but youll never forget who was on your rugby team. Youll always remember them. Its an all-inclusive brotherhood.”

“Absolutely. Thats a perfect description ” says Cape Fear Rugby Club member Jason Gruner. “If I ever moved to a different town it would take me five minutes to meet 50 guys. All I would have to do is find the local rugby club and go to a practice.”

In fact thats what Gruner did when he moved to the Wilmington area in 2007 and now hes an active member of the all-inclusive brotherhood a brotherhood that until about two years ago included a womens team.

Club member Robert Mack says that a lot of the women players were from military camps. When the Iraq war began it pulled several of these women into combat and the team slowly dissolved.

Mack is trying to build a womens team again by working alongside area residents distributing flyers and talking to members of the media.

Last year the club formed a U-19 division for high school boys in an effort to attract and train younger members. The aim of the new division is to make these young men and women better athletes so when theyre older they will have a better handle on the rules and strategy of the game.

“If youve caught a high school athlete whos played both basketball and football hell be a good rugby player because hell know how to handle the ball and stay in shape ” McGowan says.

Case in point: In the late 1970s a “real original hippie” came to one of the practices with his wife and asked McGowan if he could play with the team pick up a new game and make some new friends.

“He had never played before ” McGowan recalls “so I put him on the field and two plays later he broke his leg. That was the end of him he didnt come back.” Welcome to rugby.

But rugby players say their sport is actually far less dangerous than American football. Footballs roots can be clearly traced to rugby which began nearly a century before its American cousin was created.

Though there are admittedly more minor injuries (bruises cuts bloody noses) during rugby play thats because rugby players dont wear pads or helmets like American football players do.

“There arent as many [serious] injuries in rugby as there are in football ” says McGowan. “You cant block you cant get hit unexpectedly. Youre only going to get hit if you got the ball. You cant get blindsided.”

Still the similarities between the sports are inarguable: the goal posts the line of scrimmage the huddle the scrum the running the throwing the kicking and more.

“Thats where you get the touchdown from ” says McGowan “because in rugby you have to touch the ball to the ground to score.”

But where American football is primarily an American sport rugby is truly a global game. And on a global level the best of the best teams compete in the Rugby World Cup which in 2009 were held in Dubai from March 5-7.

Local residents have the chance to experience that same kind of worldwide excitement right here in Wilmington: The Cape Fear Rugby Club hosts a Sevens tournament every year during the July Fourth weekend that attracts teams from around the planet.

Sevens rugby differs from regular-rules rugby in that regular-rules rugby has 15 players on each side and 40-minute halves. In Sevens rugby there are seven players per side and games are made up of two seven-minute halves (except for the championship game which has 10-minute halves).

Gruner says Sevens was designed so that a host of teams could play each other and the tournament could close within a day. Its faster and more exciting than regular-rules rugby and has become a big fan favorite.

“Theres a lot more running and space a lot more skills in terms of your passing and decision making and your speed. Theres no other sport thats that fast ” says Gruner. “The tournament is a chance to watch an extremely physical sport executed at a high level and at high speed.”

The tournament draws as many as 70 teams from as far away as Kenya the Bahamas and Europe. Cities such as Chicago New York and Washington D.C. also field teams.

More than 1 000 people will descend on the Port City packing the restaurants and bars staying in hotels and renting houses on Wrightsville Beach. Some will stay the week giving the local economy a nice little shot in the arm.

This years tournament will take place on six fields in Ogden Park with matches every 15 minutes.

Gruner says the tournament is one of two two-day events in the country and is likely the largest such tournament in America.


In regular-rules rugby each of the 15 players assumes a specific position on the field. The backs are the fast guys whose job is to run and score. Forwards are the big guys who block scrum secure the ball and do the lineout. Someone called the scrum-half directs the forwards; someone else called the fly-half directs the backs.

The objective is to score more points than your opponent. This is done by moving the ball up and down the field by either carrying or kicking it. The ball can never be passed forward only backward.

Play continues without stopping until a minor penalty is called if the ball is passed forward for instance and then a scrum is used to restart play.

During a scrum the teams come together by binding at the shoulders shoving and jostling for position. Jammed and huddled together like this the players form a sort of open channel. The ball is thrown into the channel and each team tries to hook the ball back to their side of the field where other players are standing outside of the scrum and can pick the ball up.

If a ball is kicked or carried out of bounds play is restarted with a lineout similar to a throw-in during soccer. But in rugby the team lifts/hoists a player or players up into the air holding them by their legs. The player standing out of bounds with the ball tries to pass it to one of the hoisted players a task made even more difficult because the opposing team has hoisted several players into the air as well. Chaos follows.

Moving the ball across the opposing teams goal line is worth five points and is called a try. Tries are similar to touchdowns in football. After a try is scored the team has the chance to score two more points doing whats called a conversion which is kicking the ball through the uprights.

Unlike many sports the ball goes back to the team that just scored (although this is not the case in Sevens rugby).

If one team commits a penalty then the other team can take a penalty kick at the goal trying to get the ball through the uprights similar to a field goal in American football. The team can also take a simple free kick or kick the ball out of bounds and receive a lineout where the ball went out of bounds.

A penalty kick worth three points results after a more serious infraction like when one player takes hold of another players neck and throws him to the ground or when someone deliberately (and with force) upends someone else onto their head.

As rough as the game may appear the culture of rugby dictates that players be respectful toward one another. This carries over to the fans who are kind to one another even when rooting for opposing teams. The general rugby theme seems to be: Everyone has a good time.

McGowan agrees. “Once youre a member of the rugby club youre a member for life.”