The dark night is pierced by floodlights reflected by the drizzling rain. Weary men, tired from a full day’s work, lace up worn studded boots and head out onto a field. They stay there for an hour, maybe two, perhaps even three. They run until their muscles burn like acid, they push until their lungs scream for oxygen. They are muddied, battered and bruised, but still they keep going. They are fighting for an oval ball but not for themselves; they are fighting for their friends and for a team. And they do it week after week.
This is a scene that is repeated almost every day around the world, from Japan to Argentina, South Africa to Italy.
It is also repeated Wednesday nights at the Polideportivo de Pavas in western San José. This is rugby.
The basic premise of the game is simple. Playing in teams of either seven or 15, each side aims to score points by either touching the ball down past their opponents’ goal line or by kicking the ball between their posts. To do this, you have to pass, kick or run past the opposing players, but the ball cannot be passed forward. There is inevitably slightly more to it than that, but not much.
A great thing about rugby is that, while it is a contact sport, it’s a game for all shapes and sizes.
“It is a gentleman’s game first and foremost,” said Carlos Araya, 30, a Tico who took up the game only a year ago and is now part of the Rugby Costa Rica organizing committee. “And it’s based on technique – the last thing we want to happen is for people to get hurt.”
“It appeals to all sorts of people, regardless of who you are or where you’re from,” said David Bennett, 26, originally from the United States, who is also part of the organizing committee.
Although rugby is hugely popular worldwide, with the Rugby World Cup, held every four years, being the third most important international sporting event after the Olympics and the Soccer World Cup, it is hard to compete in a soccer-mad country like Costa Rica. However, the sport is slowly gaining ground here, with about 150 players active in the country and the number of registered clubs soon to be boosted from three to five.
“Obviously in the future we would like to expand,” Bennett said. “We have some guys who live out at the beach but come into the city to play, so it would be nice to get a club going out in Guanacaste (the northwestern province) at some point and maybe also on the central Pacific (coast).”
In addition to matches among local teams, Bennett organizes international matches against touring club sides and other countries in Central America. Last month, a Costa Rican veterans side played Pegasus Rugby Old Boys from the U.S. state of Florida in an exhibition game, with the home team winning 20-10.
“It was a pretty well matched game and very competitive on both sides,” Bennett said. “And they had a great time down here.
It’s good for us as well. We want to play as many games as we can, as we love the sport, but it’s also good for publicity.”
A second exhibition game was played last weekend against the Bermuda Police Rugby Football Club. A mixed Costa Rican team put up a valiant fight against the far superior visiting team, which won 31-20.
Tomorrow, however, is an even bigger match, set for 1 p.m. at the Polideportivo in the eastern San José neighborhood of Barrio Aranjuez, against the Cayman Islands national team.
“That is going to be a big deal as the Cayman Islands are IRB (International Rugby Board) affiliated,” Bennett said.
Ranked 65th out of 95 countries in the official IRB rankings, the Cayman Islands hosted the Caribbean Rugby Championship at the end of April, winning the Shield final against Jamaica, having earlier lost to eventual winners Trinidad and Tobago. According to Araya, a win against the Cayman Islands would place Costa Rica among the world rankings, and that much closer to reaching a level at which it can join the IRB.
This glut of games against foreign teams is strangely appropriate, given the cosmopolitan nature of the playing ranks in the country.
At a recent sevens tournament, one team was made up of players of seven different nationalities. However, this is not just an expats’ game, as Costa Rican players generally make up about half of the teams.
Rugby is a sport known for being incredibly sociable off the pitch. Stories of opponents who have spent 80 minutes attempting to smash each other into pieces then settling down for a beer or 10 after the final whistle are part of the game’s folklore. The team spirit and camaraderie generated by contact sports is impossible to replicate. It’s not surprising, therefore, especially with such a diverse group of players, that rugby in Costa Rica has an extremely active social section.
“The social side is a big, big part of it,” Araya said. “Every day after practice we get together for a snack and have a couple of beers. Also, we have a tradition that we call the ‘third half ’ after the games, when the host always has the visitors to beers, food or whatever. It’s a big thing … It’s where all the bonding comes from and is one of the best things about playing the game.
“We even have people who are not part of the teams but have really come to be part of the social side.”
For information about rugby in Costa Rica, e-mail Carlos Araya at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.rugbycostarica.com.