POSTED ON MAY 8, 2013:
Long, Hard Road
Rugby crew seeks its first national title
One of the most successful sports organizations in Tulsa doesn't charge admission.
As a matter of fact, they even provide free burgers and beverages to the weekend spectators that attend games at the team's home on the bank of the Arkansas River.
Sure, they may not have the most effective business model, but what the Tulsa Rugby Football Club lacks in business savvy, they make up for with a 29-year history of on-field success.
And this year might be their best yet.
Recently, the club won the USA Rugby West Territory Union and finds itself headed to the Sweet 16 of the Division II national playoffs. Though this season's accomplishment marks the club's fourth Sweet 16 appearance in seven years, it comes as little surprise to the 25 or so rugby enthusiasts that make up Tulsa's club.
"This team is one of the best that I've ever seen," said Chris Smith, a club administrator and former local rugby standout. "They set out in September with a goal of nothing short of a national championship."
Though their ascension through the sport's national ranks this season is impressive, what's most remarkable is the continued success the club has enjoyed over the years. On the field, the Tulsa RFC has been one of the region's best since its inception in 1974. The main reason for that success is consistent support from the Tulsa community and an endless pool of local fanatics willing to put forth the immense effort necessary to succeed in the world of rugby.
Week after week, club players who moonlight as everything from oilfield workers and auto mechanics to doctors and lawyers take the field in one of the most exhausting sports on Earth. While most anyone is welcome to give the sport a go, it takes a certain kind of person to be successful.
"You've got to be physically tough and you've got to be mentally tough," Smith said. "It's not for the average athlete that's just wanting to stay in shape. It's a highly competitive, physically demanding sport."
To call rugby physically demanding may be quite an understatement. Week after week, rugby players like those of the Tulsa RFC are exposed to nearly 80 minutes of continuous collisions similar to those found in high-level football. The only significant difference is that they do so without the benefit of a helmet or padding. Though it may seem like a form of reckless abandonment, Smith insists there's a science involved in safely tackling an opponent.
"In football, you've got a helmet; you've got pads," Smith said. "Therefore, form can sort of go out the window. The helmet can be a weapon, and when you take athletes of that size and speed and give them that protection, they're going to throw their entire body at you."
Smith also added that because rugby players aren't given the protective equipment commonly found in football, there is more of an emphasis on using proper form and operating with a heightened sense of self-preservation.
Of course there are exceptions. Clotheslining, elbowing and several other types of illegal hits are commonplace on the rugby field and, although penalized, there are instances where rugby can be downright violent. Regardless of the broken noses and busted lips, there's still something that has made rugby one of the fastest-growing team sports in the country.
"Everybody that plays wants to be there and they want to compete," Smith said.
That continued sense of competitiveness has also led to its share of rivalries throughout the years, but that stays on the field.
"Even though we may beat each other up or play a very physical game on the field, we still host the visiting team," Smith said. "After the game, we drink beer, eat food and just socialize after the game. That's a standing tradition."
Tulsa's biggest rugby rivals are the St. Louis Bombers and the Greater Omaha Area Touring Side (Omaha GOATS). Though the teams share a mutual amount of respect for one another, significant bouts with major implications have made each meeting important. En route to their recent Sweet 16 berth, Tulsa bested the rival GOATS 38-19, much to the delight of a Tulsa squad that has competed with Omaha for the league's top ranking year in and year out.
Tulsa's next opponent will hail from the southern California territory, and with this year's Sweet 16 event held in Irving, Texas, Tulsa holds a considerable advantage over their west coast opponent. The last time Tulsa made the Sweet 16, they were forced to travel to San Diego, and Smith said the distance put the club at a substantial disadvantage.
"[Being in Irving] is a huge advantage this year," Smith said. "We're almost looking at Irving as a home game."
If Tulsa wins its Sweet 16 matchup, the team plays the following day for a chance to reach the USA Rugby playoff tournament's esteemed Final Four round in Glendale, Colo., where the semifinal and final rounds will be played on June 4 and 5.
For a sport that rivals football in its intensity, the notion of playing games on consecutive days might seem ludicrous. But for these guys, it just comes with the territory.
"You have guys that play all 80 minutes (of a game) on both days," Smith said. "That is a level of sore you cannot describe."
For enduring that heightened level of sore, the rewards are minimal. The players of the Tulsa RFC don't earn a single cent for the time and effort they put towards the sport. There are few opportunities to ascend beyond the ranks of amateur leagues like these. While there may be a few opportunities to play in high school and collegiate programs, the odds of making a living playing rugby in the U.S. are slim.
But according to Smith, rugby players are a different breed of athlete. They don't seem to care about anything more than the camaraderie and competition the sport provides. While athletes in other sports aspire to reach major league levels and have potentially lucrative careers in their respective sports, the men of rugby are content with the casual nature of their sport and driven by the idea of succeeding as a band of brothers.
The evolution of the sport and accomplishing the ultimate goal of winning a national title are what matter most to the men of the Tulsa RFC.
"Their goal is a national championship," said Smith. "They want to continue to grow the sport, compete and continue to uphold the standards for the sport that we've set.
"These guys aren't paid," Smith added. "No one's forcing them to be there. They want to be there because they want to win. That's the bottom line."
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