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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Martin Pengelly in Washington

Want a more perfect union? Watch the Rugby World Cup

The Webb Ellis Cup on display in Gennevilliers, France.
The Webb Ellis Cup on display in Gennevilliers, France. Photograph: Stéphanie Lecocq/Reuters

On Friday, the 10th Rugby World Cup will kick-off in Paris with a monumental match-up, France against New Zealand, les Bleus against the All Blacks. Like most rugby fans in Washington, and across the US, I will be watching on TV.

With my sister-in-law, who played at Dartmouth, I’ll be at the French embassy in Georgetown. We are promised a taste of “the extraordinary atmosphere found at rugby matches at French stadiums”. Lucky us. Less fortunately, the US men’s team will also watch from these shores. The Eagles failed to qualify for France, losing out to Uruguay, Chile and Portugal. Nonetheless, American sports fans who do not know rugby should consider tuning in too.

Most will see something familiar. Rugby springs from the same root as football. A rugby ball is similar in shape to a football, if slightly fatter. A rugby tackle is similar in form to a football tackle, if slightly lower. A rugby player is similar in craziness to a football player, if slightly madder.

A century ago, American rugby might have seized its moment. As American football struggled to contain the violent passions it provoked, its wilder cousin flowered. Teams full of Stanford students won Olympic gold in 1920 and 1924. But then football got its house in order, becoming the dominant pastime.

Rugby survived, in colleges and clubs, a sport for outsiders but also for future Washington giants. Bill Clinton (Oxford), George W Bush (Yale) and Joe Biden (Syracuse) played. So did James Baker (Princeton) and Ted Kennedy (Harvard). The women’s game also took hold. Ask Gina Raimondo, Biden’s commerce secretary. She has said rugby at Radcliffe was good preparation for politics.

I’m not American but I am a rugby lifer. And, more than 20 years ago, on my first visit to Washington, I had a game for the Maryland Exiles.

We played in Bethesda, at Burning Tree elementary, against the Potomac Athletic Club. The facilities were spare, the game was fast, I made friends that last to this day. I’ve recently moved to DC. Just last week, I met an old Exile (Jason Maloni, memorably called “rugby pretty boy” by Jake Tapper of CNN) at Millie’s on Massachusetts. Paul Sheehy, once an Eagles wing, and Chris Dunlavey, co-owners of the DC pro team, were there too.

A couple years after that game in Bethesda, American rugby found me again. Playing for Rosslyn Park, a London club, I faced the cadets of West Point. The game was one to remember. As time passed, I found myself wondering what happened when those cadets went into an army at war. Eight years ago, on the eve of a previous World Cup, I set out to find out.

That piece for the Guardian has now become a book. The research took me across America: to the borderlands of Ohio and Pennsylvania, to California, to towns and bases in between. Two of the team I faced died, at Ranger School in Georgia and on a lake in Texas, before any had seen action. Most of the rest saw it, in Iraq or Afghanistan. One was killed in Baghdad, by an IED. Another died recently, of cancer. All have been touched by loss.

The survivors are in their 40s, consumed by life and work. Some are in the defense industry, some are investors, others work in oil. All have families to support. But in twos or threes or full reunions they remain a band of brothers, their bond forged in rugby. Their team contained a Rhodes scholar, two special forces operators, two helicopter pilots, a bunch of infantry officers. It contained a few classic rugby berserkers, the kind that populate most college teams. Most dreamt of playing army football but saw such dreams dashed. But that only sent them to rugby, where they found their tribe.

In Texas and Oklahoma, in Massachusetts and Virginia, they will watch the World Cup too. Like me, and like millions of others in America, they may try to watch the biggest games in friendly bars, with fans of all national and political stripes.

One American fan I know prefers to count his stars. HR McMaster is a retired three-star general and former national security adviser. He is also a rugby nut, having played on the wing for West Point. We have talked on record as well as off it at the bar. I have asked him what rugby means. I think his words bear repeating.

The West Point rugby team of 2002.
The West Point rugby team of 2002. Photograph: Provided by Pete Chacon.

He said: “We’re more connected to each other electronically than ever before but more distant from each other psychologically and emotionally than ever before. So I recommend that we come together on basketball courts and rugby pitches, to renew our fellowship with one another and to transcend the vitriol that we see on social media.”

Clearly, rugby is not the only sport which can bring Americans together. But McMaster feels that rugby fuels an “abundance of what seems scarce in society today: exemplars of comradeship and the willingness to sacrifice for one another and one’s fellow citizens”.

I think, or hope, he’s right. Rugby has its magic to work.

American rugby is gaining a foothold. A men’s professional competition, Major League Rugby, has played six seasons. World Rugby has placed a big bet. In 2031, the men’s World Cup, the third-biggest global sporting event, will come to the US. Two years later, the women will follow.

So though the US men will be missing from France over the next month, any curious American who finds a game on NBC or passes a bar full of fans – in DC, perhaps the Tight Five in Adams Morgan, where “every day is a rugby day” – might pause to take in the show. Rugby is not unique, but it is special. When the rugby bug bites, it holds.

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