Originally created 06/19/03

Labor of Love



The scar on Lisa Pate's cheekbone is like a badge of honor.

Whenever she looks in the mirror, she vividly remembers the fateful scrum and that enemy rugger's elbow that opened the bloody gash. And she can't help but laugh at the memory of taking those six stitches that day.

More importantly, it's the rough-and-tumble game of rugby and the story behind that battle scar that really makes her smile.

"Rugby's an incredible sport," said Pate, an engineer at Savannah River Site. "It looks rough, but it's not as rough as you'd think. Getting a couple of stitches isn't a big deal. Something like that wouldn't make me stop playing."

For Pate and the members of the Augusta Rugby Club, the old English game they play is more than just a sport.

It's a way of life.

"The camaraderie is great, and the people are so tight, it's like a great big family," said Jeanne Juntunen, a 46-year-old mother of two and veteran rugger. "You can go anywhere around the world and see people you've seen before playing rugby, and they treat you like a long-lost friend. Anywhere you go, it's like an instant family."

For the past 30 years, the Augusta Rugby Club has been a second family to hundreds of local players.

The club was founded in 1973 when a trio of Medical College of Georgia students - Jim McMillan, Dan Ferguson and Tom Hazelhurst - got together at Squeaky's Tip Top to have a few beers and discuss their plans to introduce rugby to other students. Because the club was made up of future doctors, they called the first team "Mad Dogs," or "MDs"

"The original team of MCG doctors started it all, and some of them are still playing now with the old boys," said Shaun Pruitt, whom goes by the nickname "Sea Bass" on the rugby pitch. "Now, you have mostly professional people and some military. It's really the best game there is for camaraderie. We have socials wit each other and the team travels around to play in tournaments. It's like a family."

The Augusta Rugby Club has 15-person teams for men and women and competes in two main seasons - fall and spring - against teams around the Southeast. In the summertime, the club fields seven-member teams and competes in tournaments from North Carolina to Florida.

The game was invented in 1923 in England at a private school named Rugby when a man named Webb Ellis picked up a ball with his hands during a soccer game and ran it past the goal line.

"What started as a prank turned out to be the most fascinating and altruistic athletic game," wrote Dr. Edouard J. Servy, one of the founding members of the Augusta Rugby Club, on the club's Web site.

A rugby match consists of two teams with 15 players on each side. There are two 40-minute halves with a five-minute halftime. The game is played with an oblong ball similar to a football, and the object is to score by crossing the opponents' goal line or "try zone" and touching the ball to the ground.

Drop kicks through the goal posts, penalty kicks and conversion kicks after a try are other modes of scoring.

No blocking or forward passing allowed, and there are no substitutions or timeouts, so the fast-paced game features continuous play for 40 minutes.

Ruggers do not wear helmets or padding to protect them.

"There is tackling, however, with the amount of contact you have, you don't have to have pads because your body develops a hardness," Pruitt said. "There is also a certain way you have to tackle somebody within the rules. You can't tackle as hard without pads, so you learn to pace yourself and make the hits controlled."

Most players say they do not fear injuring themselves, despite the physical nature of the game.

"It looks rough, but it's really not, because the way they make you tackle, the rules are designed to minimize injuries," Pate said. "It's hard to convince women they're not going to get hurt. But playing rugby is really the safest sport there is."

Safe and rewarding. For many local ruggers, the game is part of their lifestyle. Some have taken rugby vacations abroad, traveling to England, France and Scotland to compete with clubs there.

"I started playing rugby in college, and I've never stopped," Pruitt said. "I went to Georgia Southern University to play football, but that didn't pan out because I had to work. Rugby was the next best thing. There's no other sport like it."

Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425.