Michael Heller, who walked away with pretty much every photography prize at the recent state press association contest, said in walking up to me at Herrick Park the other day that he’d seen only one other rugby game and therefore knew practically nothing about the sport.
“I’ve seen hundreds of rugby games,” I said, “and I know nothing either. Though what you want to do is zero in on a maul — that’s when they’re standing up with the ball and pushing and shoving — which ought to nicely fill up your frame. Lineout plays, where the ball is thrown in from the sidelines and where you are confronted with a tower of graspers who either want to catch it or tap it back to their mates, also are pleasing. . . . It’s hard not to get good pictures at a rugby game.”
Violence and grace . . . truth and beauty. . . . They make such sports nuts of us all.
“There is such a thing as a free catch in rugby, I’ve been told,” I said later to Isabel Carmichael, one of our hawk-eyed proofreaders. (She’ll catch you out if you don’t watch your grammatical step.) “But I doubt if you said, ‘Mark!’ any in the phalanx of onrushers would pay attention. You’d be interred where you stood — in deep doo-doo.”
And then I went on to say that because the ball’s always live when it’s in-bounds, and because blocking’s not allowed, and because there’s no spearing with helmets, as in football, serious injuries in rugby are far fewer than in football. “It’s mayhem with a difference,” I said, “and afterward they raise a glass to their antagonists, their bloodied buddies. . . . It beats suicide bombings by a long shot. Though if rugby were to become the vehicle for settling international disputes, we’d no longer be King of the Hill — we’ve got a ways to go in that regard.”
Even so, the madness is fun to watch, whether you understand what’s going on or not.
And so, godspeed to our Montauk Rugby Club stalwarts as they head out this weekend to Pittsburgh, where they’ll clash — and later rub elbows with — their peers from the South, the Midwest, and mid-Atlantic. Good ruck to them all.