JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- In 1823, picking up a round football and running with it on the school grounds of 'Rugby School,' a private co-educational day and boarding school in Rugby, Warwickshire, England, William Webb Ellis had no idea he would be called the father of the sport we know as rugby. Whether this is fact or myth, the international committee named the Rugby world cup the "William Webb Ellis Trophy." In 1971, a club team was born in San Antonio at the hands of a few doctors from Brooke Army Medical Center.
On Saturday, October 15, the San Antonio Rugby Football Club and the British Army Medical Services team played a match on a freshly cut pitch (field) at the Wheatley Sports Complex. It is not uncommon for the temperature to reach 90 degrees in San Antonio, but on this fall afternoon, it may have been a little hot for the visiting competitors. Exiting the pitch at the end of the first half of the match, one of the players from the visiting British team said, "Alright gents, stay warm and loose." A teammate comically yelled back, "Well, there's really no chance at that not happening is there?" This had been the light-hearted tone of the entire visit to the Alamo City.
Rugby is a physical sport with a short list of rules and very little equipment needed. Only a shirt, shorts and cleats, or boots as they are called in Europe, are allowed, with 5 millimeters of padding normally used for head gear to avoid scratches, nicks and cauliflower ear.
Most are familiar with basic rules and terms of the game. A match has two 40 minute halves with a five minute break in between. There are no time outs and only seven substitutions are allowed. The 'scrum' looks like organized chaos or a group wrestling match, and the 'lineout' features team members lifting another high in the air to catch a throw from out of bounds to resume play. But make no mistake, the action is fast, fierce and fun to watch.
There is a distinct connection between the two teams that played on a smoldering fall afternoon; both have ties to the medical profession. The day before the match, our allies visited BAMC, and toured the Center for the Intrepid.
"On a defense engagement piece it (visit to BAMC) worked out really well," said Warrant Officer 2nd Class Stuart Cooke, Combat Medical Technician in the British Army and member of the BAMS team. "We were kind of unaware that San Antonio was the home of US military medicine, so as soon as we found that out we got in contact with Arnal (Sgt. Arnal Prasad, assistant noncommissioned officer in charge of rheumatology and dermatology at BAMC; also on the board of directors for the SARFC and plays the position of 'prop' for the team) and he sounded really keen to get on board for us to come and visit BAMC and the CFI."
Prasad had a vital role in arranging the match with the AMS. "We're the 15th largest team in the country and the 3rd fastest growing team in the country, so that's one of the reasons we get put on the map to have teams like this play us," said Prasad.
"We have varying degrees of medical trades from physical therapists, to dentists, doctors, combat medical technicians, dog handlers, MEDEVAC pilots (on the team) so I think you can have that bond because you're military, and I think you can have that bond because you're medical," said Cooke. "So I think that has worked out as a massive added bonus for us to form that relationship that will hopefully go on into the future and we can reciprocate in the UK if they can ever bring a team over."
Both teams had important objectives for playing these types of matches. "The advantage for us (SARFC) is it is higher caliber rugby," said Prasad. "We get to see a different style of play. A much more aggressive, much more skillful style of play that we're not used to seeing here. So it brings our game up a whole notch." Cooke has a different but important perspective. "The first point of our tour is to develop the British Medical Services team for the season in the UK," he explained. "The second point is to spread the word of rugby across America and hopefully develop the US game and develop our community and contacts as we come over, and to offer a bit of coaching advice and how it is happening in England because it is a bit more of a popular sport."
Watching the match unfold was much like one of the signature plays in the game, the scrum. What looks like chaos to an observer, is really an organized movement. "A scrum is a big boy's game," said Prasad. "You have 8 people (from both teams -- total of 16) out of 15 in a scrum. It starts off with two props in the front and a guy called the hooker, sandwiched by the props who are basically propping the scrum up and then everybody behind them locks us in; you have 2 locks; you have flankers that flank on the side; and you have a big man on your eight side (on the back), watching the blind side from either side of the field. The ball is thrown in the middle and you're binding, clashing and trying to push each other over the ball."
Never mind the final score was BAMS 45 SARFC 10. It seemed to be irrelevant to the players. "I think rugby is a great alternative for those who have played football (American) and want to play a physical sport and want to play with a rugby club," said Cooke.
The fact that medical professionals play such a seemingly rough sport does not faze the participants. "No, it's not that dangerous," said Prasad. "It looks a lot worse than it is. "In rugby you're wearing basically your shorts and a t-shirt, and you're throwing the ball backwards and you have to think about self-preservation." Cooke gave a little more perspective. "If you go in concerned about getting injured, you're going to get hurt," he said. "So your mind has to be focused on the game. There will always be someone to fill the gap if need be. Otherwise we wouldn't play."
Within the organized chaos of the scrums and lineouts, there are four BAMC service members and one contractor currently on the SARFC team, and they are looking to add more. "Most people that play here on our team are military or ex-military, whether they are from BAMC or other units at Fort Sam Houston, said Prasad. "The family atmosphere is what we look for. It is a judicious sport."