As Mark Finielo, a third-year St. George Skule fullback, held his bloodied hand while grimacing in pain, his opponent Kassim Baluch—the captain/coach of the UTM Eagles—was the first to his aid. In concern for Finielo he called for the trainer, as if Finielo were one of his own teammates. Kassim helped compress Finielo’s visibly dislocated pinky finger and reminded him to stay calm. The stoppage ended and Baluch resumed play.
On the rugby pitch, pride and individuality is frowned upon. Competitiveness and respect—for yourself, your team, and your opponent—is what unites players, even those from opposing teams.
Rugby, often compared to American football due to the level of physical contact, is plagued with damning misconceptions. But the Eagles are determined to prove the critics wrong. “The only way rugby works is respect. You go out in the pitch, you play as hard as you, tackle your opponents as hard as you can,” referee Thomas Krebs explained.
On Saturday, the Eagles beat St. George’s Skule (Team A) Engineers, 10–0, in a cold and gritty contest. The Eagles scored all of their points in the second half—three from a penalty kick and seven from a try and kick to seal the win.
Eagles’ assistant captain, Zalal Yousif, felt the perspective that casual spectators use when viewing the game is unfair. Taking up the sport as a former high school football player, he saw rugby as nothing more than a variation of football, but it was the focus on respect for opponents and teammates that changed his outlook. “It’s a gentleman’s sport; players know that what happens on the field stays on the field. Literally, after games, opponents go out and drink together,” he added.
Ironically, the Eagles huddled together and chanted the chorus of the Drowning Pools rock anthem “Let the Bodies hit the Floor!” as a pre-game warmup to intimidate Skule, but even in winning, they sent out respect in three cheers for their opponents.
Adam Boyce, the Eagles’ second assistant captain, felt that unlike in other sports, the thrill is not in cheap shots and trying to hurt the opponent. He explained, “It’s the nature of the game. You can’t hit a man and be dirty all game; that’s not right.” Respect was even awarded to the referee after the game with another round of three cheers, which is a common practice in leagues all over the world.
Though respect and camaraderie are evident between the players, the credibility of the game remains an issue with the fans. Krebs believes that the misunderstanding is from those who aren’t actually fans, hurting the sport. “The problem with rugby is that people don’t understand it and they don’t know what’s going on, they just think its utter chaos. There’s no chaos going on, everybody knows what’s going on and it’s all controlled, and it’s beautiful.”
Unlike in football, diva behaviour is hard to find on the pitch, partially because it hurts a team’s chemistry—but it can also be penalized. “This is one of the few sports where there’s a penalty called ‘dissent’, where if you even throw your arms up at the referee and challenge the call, it will garner you a penalty,” Krebs explained.
BJ Callingham, a volunteer coach, UTM alumnus, and member of the Eagles’ inaugural rugby team, feels that students should be open to accept and embrace the sport, even those who are not familiar with it. “Z[alal] is somebody who came from football to rugby—guys don’t go the other way. Once they come into rugby they stay, because like football, there’s hard hitting, there’s camaraderie, but it’s all game long. Non-stop.”
Yousif takes pride in the sport because of the team dynamics and integrity displayed by opponents, and he has a message for critics: “Not one person can make up a whole team. We work hard together, and losing players hurts more than anything. Everyone thinks that it’s straight-up a brute sport, but they don’t know anything about the game. It’s more technical than any sport I’ve played. Anyone can try; come out for a practice and see.”
In two weeks, UTM’s South Field will serve as the playoff pitch, after the team claimed home field advantage on Saturday. The Eagles head into a bye week this week, but will look to defend their turf on November 6.
Callingham has an invitation for any prospective athletes: “Anybody that wants to come—every year we’re recruiting, every year we got new guys, every year we teach them, and they never go away.”