By the time our college rugby team reached Paris, we were a bedraggled crew. In just over a week, we had already played hard-fought matches in Ireland, Wales, and England, before making it across the English Channel to France on a rough overnight ferry boat trip that still lives in our memories all these decades later.
It was the spring of either 1973 or 74, a couple years after I had returned from Vietnam, back in college in hopes of finally earning a degree—any degree in any subject by that point. After eighteen or twenty of my fellow students at our Ivy League college had joined the school’s rugby club the previous fall, we were enjoying an all-expense-paid, 10-day trip to Europe that following spring.
So, yes, we were there to represent our college—and the fledgling sport of rugby in America more generally—but mostly we were there to see the sights, drink the beer, meet the locals, and take snapshots of each other in front of quaint buildings.
A few of us had brought girlfriends along as well, paying their traveling expenses out of our own pockets. I had brought a lovely Irish girl from the tip of Long Island. For all but a few of us, this was our first trip to Europe. So, yes, we were there to represent our college—and the fledgling sport of rugby in America more generally—but mostly we were there to see the sights, drink the beer, meet the locals, and take snapshots of each other in front of quaint buildings.
As a hands-across-the-sea goodwill gesture, a big London-based insurance company was footing our bill, paying for the plane flights and all the local travel and lodging, plus furnishing us with nice matching navy blue blazers to wear as we travelled. We mostly paid for our own food and drink, though the hosting rugby clubs usually put out a big spread before and after our games with them—and a couple clubs had us stay overnight in their players’ homes.
Going Up Against the Best
Our game in Paris was to be the capstone of our trip, our chance to go home with a winning record after beating teams in Ireland and England, while losing in Wales and a second match in England. But our final opponent—the Paris University Club—was reputedly one of the best rugby union clubs in Europe, and our ragtag collection of college students had no ranking anywhere—plus we were worn out from travel and the carousing that had gone with it.
Watching the 40-member Paris team trot jauntily onto the pitch in the huge, empty stadium that afternoon, a betting man would have wagered—usingBetMGM bonus code—the house on the Frenchmen. Yes, we Americans were young, athletic, and generally fit. If anything, man for man, we were larger and perhaps even stronger and faster than our French counterparts.
But we were mostly former high school football players, who barely knew the rules of rugby, much less any of its finer strategies. We had to fight the urge to heave long passes down the field, for example—something that was simply not part of rugby.
Our counterparts, by contrast, had been playing rugby since they were little kids. Plus, in football—the American variety—the premium is on stopping the man with the ball cold, tackling him to the ground, and then catching your breath for twenty or thirty seconds until the next play begins.
In rugby, except right at the goal line, stopping the ball carrier cold is beside the point, with the better strategy being to turn him toward your team so your teammates can strip the ball from him and carry it forward in the opposite direction. And there is no stopping between plays either. Rather, more like soccer, play continues until a score is made, the ball goes out of bounds, or one of the many infractions is called.
And that means a lot more running—and replacements are few or none, at least back in the 70s when we were playing. So, our American size and strength played to our advantage for the first five or ten minutes of the 90-minute match, when we could knock our smaller opponents around and storm over them roughshod. But then the worm quickly turned, as the Frenchmen’s ability to run for the full length of the game left us gasping and wheezing in their wake.
And, by that point in the trip, we were tired from the travel and earlier games, which had involved several mismatches. The game at the club outside Dublin pitted us against high school students—teenagers six or eight years younger than us, who simply weren’t strong enough to stop us nor fit enough to outlast us.
Straight from the Mines
Then came a bruising contest in Neath, near Cardiff on the south coast of Wales, against a bunch of grim-faced coal miners who came straight from their work in the mine, changed into their rugby kit, and battered us around the pitch with discernable glee for the full length of the match—another easy bet atplaybonuscode.
Then, in Southampton, we had a rather easy match against a bunch of sailors, fresh off their British naval ship anchored in the harbor, who didn’t bring the same level of grit to the proceedings the miners had exhibited but who threw the best party imaginable afterwards.
Our best outing was probably the match the next day at Cambridge University, north of London, against a college team much like our own. Yes, they knew the game much better, but we had an inspired afternoon and had figured out how to play to our larger size and strength and away from the Brits’ endless endurance. For all that, as time was expiring, their right wing forward broke free for a long run down the pitch and we lost by a couple points.
Still, coming off that showing, our hopes were high that we could beat another college team in Paris. But, we quickly found, that’s not what we were facing. Rather, the Paris University Club had older players, graduate students and alumni and professors, many of whom had played in international matches and even on the French national team.
To say that we got clobbered would be putting it mildly. I don’t know that they had any particular animus toward us as Americans, or college kids, or players who weren’t taking the game seriously enough. But it was clear that they had a point to make. The final score was something like 66 to 8, a huge lopsided victory, a run-up almost unheard of in rugby.
I had torn something in my shoulder in the first game against the Irish kids, but was able to return to action in the final two games. I can still recall chasing the shifty French players up and down the pitch, holding my arm against my side to lessen the pain in the injured shoulder, and listening to the opponents shout “Allez, Allez, Allez!”—that’s “Come On, Come On, Come On” in English—urging each other on to our utter humiliation.
At least the wine at the local Paris markets cost next to nothing and the Irish girl was happy I brought her along.