Pitching rugby to Augusta

It may not be America's favorite pastime, but Augusta rugby players say it is an addictive sport.


"I'll do it till I can't do it any more," said Stephen Hickey, known as "Boomer" to his teammates. "It's a thrill-seeking adventure to step on the pitch and know that everyone out there is trying to kill you but everyone on your team is trying to save you."

The Augusta Rugby Football Club started 38 years ago with a group of students at the Medical College of Georgia, hence the team's name -- Mad Dogs -- for the M.D. students. Because it is player operated, the club has "waxed and waned" through the years, according to coach Shawn Elms. In the 1980s, the team began including men from other professions, and it won the Palmetto Union Championship with a perfect record. The team traveled abroad five times to play European teams. Yet the Mad Dogs were popular only among themselves in those days.

"They played 25 years ago, in front of a crowd of five people just because they loved to play," Elms said. "Now game days are great. There's a party on the sideline, music's playing. And everybody's wives and kids are there, and they bring their dogs, too."

The past few years have been remarkable for the club. In 2008, it acquired its own field, the Larry Bray Memorial on Wood Street, close to Lake Olmstead Stadium, where the Augusta GreenJackets play. And last year, the club's high school team -- the Barbarians -- won the state championship. One of the high school players -- Jamal Hadley, from Lakeside High School -- recently received a rugby scholarship to American International College in Massachusetts.

Jamal said he's fairly new to rugby. He grew up playing and watching football, which he played for the Lakeside Panthers for the past four years. Last year, a friend asked Jamal to play in a rugby game because there weren't enough players.

"I got penalized a lot because I didn't know the rules," Jamal said with a laugh, "but I've loved it ever since."

According to Rugby Union history, the sport evolved in the early 1800s when a soccer player in Rugby, England, picked up a soccer ball and carried it with his hands in an attempt to score a goal. The game also was played in North America, where it evolved into football in the United States. So there are many similarities and common terms among the three sports.

A rugby field, called a pitch, is close to the size of a soccer field, with an H-shaped goal post on each end. The ball is oval shaped like a football. A team is made up of 15 players, who wear jerseys, shorts, cleats and a mouth guard. Some players wear a thinly padded "scrum cap" to protect their ears.

Like football, rugby is a contact sport. But, as in soccer, the ball never stops. It is advanced by a player running with it, passing it sideways or backwards, or kicking it forward. There is no blocking, so only the player carrying the ball is tackled. When the player is tackled, the ball is still alive.

"So, it's a fight for possession of the ball," explained Pete Redmond, one of the high school coaches. "Every tackle is like a fumble in football."

A team scores five points with a "try," which is a player touching the ball to the ground past the goal line. The try -- touching the ball to the ground -- gave the term "touchdown" to football. Extra points are earned through conversions in both sports.

Those who don't know the game but are interested in learning are welcomed by the Augusta Rugby Club, president Brian Kaufman said, adding that the camaraderie in the sport is a given no matter what town, state or country is being visited.

"It's not just a sport; it's family," Kaufman said.

For more information on the local club, go to www.augustarugby.org.