Sean Morgan has rugby in his blood, and this time of year always gets his blood pumping. That’s because the annual Cam-Am Rugby Tournament is drawing near, and 120 teams will descend upon Saranac Lake and Lake Placid to compete.
There will be mud, there will be scrapes and bruises, but, most of all, there will be camaraderie, both on and off the field.
“I’ve played college ball and semi-pro football,” Sean said. “Football was my first love. But with rugby, the camaraderie is there. There’s a tradition behind it.”
Getting into it
Sean started playing with the local Mountaineers Rugby Football Club in 1974. His interest in the sport didn’t occur in a vacuum — his brother John helped start the club, and all of his brothers played. Including Sean, there were seven Morgans on the field in those days.
In the ’70s, only four teams competed in Can-Am. Since then, a Mountaineers women’s club formed in 1988, more divisions have been added to include various age groups, the amount of teams signing up for Can-Am increases yearly, and the rules about tackling are different. About 10 years ago, high tackling — anything above the breastbone — was banned. Other changes were also made to the sport to keep things moving and to keep player-to-player collisions down.
“The big difference between rugby and American football is, all of the injuries from American football come from blocking,” Sean. “It isn’t legal to block in rugby. It’s very fluid.”
Those things are all significant, but Sean said the biggest change is the competition. It’s grown tremendously, and now the regular season also has several teams from around the region — places like Burlington, Plattsburgh, and Fort Drum — competing.
A different kind of sport
Sean stopped playing in the early 1990s and now focuses on being a referee. Even with the steady surge in rugby interest, he said he doesn’t think many Americans understand the sport. It’s rough, that’s for sure, but it’s also exciting to watch. And it’s also very different from football.
“In American football, there are 22 guys on the field and six referees,” Sean said. “In rugby, there are 30 of us on the field and one referee. That’s why they call it a gentleman’s sport.”
Cameron and Ericka Moody, the husband and wife team who act as the president and vice president of the Mountaineers, respectively, agreed with Sean’s assessment. Ericka added that one of her favorite quotes is “Soccer is a gentleman’s game played by a bunch of hooligans; rugby is a hooligan’s sport played by a bunch of gentlemen.”
Even though she doesn’t know who to attribute it to (the internet doesn’t, either), she said it rings true.
“I’ve been punched in the face, I’ve had people step on my face, I’ve been kicked in almost every body part I have, and after the game you get up, shake hands, get a beer together, and everything’s fine,” Ericka said. “I’ve seen girls bleeding from the face say, ‘Let’s go get a beer!’”
Cameron started playing in 2009 and Ericka started a year later, shortly after the couple started dating. A bunch of her friends convinced her to try it, so she went to a practice and kind of liked it. Ericka played a game after three practices and that was it.
“You’re just thrown right in there, and I have to say it was the best way to learn rugby,” Ericka said. “I can sit here and tell you all the rules, but until you’re in that situation they’re not going to click.”
Getting the Mountaineers together
The Moodys do more than play rugby. While a few teams that compete in Cam-Am don’t do anything but Can-Am, the Mountaineers try to play throughout the year.
They put the team together and set up matches — they shoot for about 10 a year — but that varies depending on player availability. Since the Mountaineers rely a lot on college students, it’s difficult to get enough players together in the summer. Luckily, there’s a lot of leeway in the sport that makes it easier to work with different numbers. Teams can sideline players to even things out, sometimes bringing things down to seven people per side.
Ericka is still learning about the sport seven years after her first time on the field, and she said no one should let not knowing the rules stop them from going to a rugby game. Yes, it’s wildly different than common American sports, but the chaos — the pushing and the running and the passing — starts to make sense after a while. Plus, the game is physical and fast paced, making it an exciting spectacle to observe.
If you’re in Saranac Lake during the Can-Am Rugby Tournament, be sure to check it out. Not only is it highly entertaining; you’re bound to pick up a few new terms while you’re there. Here are a few to get you started:
- Hooker: It’s not what you think. This player (jersey #9) is in the middle of the front row in a scrum, and hooks arms with other players. The hooker kicks or hooks the ball back to teammates once the ball enters the scrum.
- Scrum: A formation that starts play. You'll know it when you see it — players are packed tightly together and push as a group into the opposing team, with the goal of gaining possession of the ball.
- Forward: Larger players tasked with blocking.
- Back: Smaller, faster players tasked with moving the ball.
- Mulligrubber: A style of kicking in which the ball is directed toward the ground and forced to bounce. This can be used to place the ball in a specific position or to stop the opponent from being able to catch the ball.
- Sin bin: The rugby version of a penalty box.