Before enrolling at Springfield College, David McKenna III and Ben Rapaport didn’t know a scrum from scram, a tighthead from a loosehead or a blindside flanker from an openside flanker.
Now they not only know the meaning and significance of these rugby positions, they have experience playing them.
While neither Bangor High School graduate had ever watched, let alone played, rugby before college, they have quickly learned to play significant roles and helped lead Springfield’s club team to the Elite Eight of the National Small College Rugby Association Division III national playoffs this year.
After getting through the regular season unbeaten with seven wins, the Region I (New England Conference) fourth-seeded Springfield men’s club team edged No. 5 Keene State 26-24 in the opening round and then upset regional top seed Tufts University 24-17. The Pride’s pulsating playoff run was finally ended by No. 3 Salve Regina, which knocked off Springfield 53-21 in the regional championship game.
“We’ve never gotten to the playoffs since I started here, so it was a great season for us,” said McKenna, who wound up winning the game against Keene State on a two-point kick.
Not bad for a guy from Bangor who’d never even seen a rugby game before coming to Springfield.
“I played soccer from all through youth leagues on up to my sophomore year in high school, and I switched to football my last two years just to try something different, but I knew nothing about rugby,” McKenna said.
So why rugby?
“Since about 96 percent of the student body participates in sports there, I wanted to play a sport, but football was too competitive at the time for me,” said the senior sports communications major who is also earning a business minor. “Some friends suggested rugby, so I gave it a shot. At first I really didn’t know what was going on. I had to get used to it, but I loved it.”
Rugby is a combination of football and soccer with a twist or two, the most notable of which is a lack of pads for the players. The object of the game is to score as many points as possible by carrying, passing or kicking an oval leather ball about twice as big as a football toward a scoring zone (think end zone) at the far end of the field of play, which is called a pitch.
Sound confusing? It is. Just ask McKenna or Rapaport.
“I don’t know how bad it was for him, but when I was starting out, there was no blocking and I couldn’t get my head around that,” said Rapaport, a freshman who will study sports management. “It takes a couple weeks to understand it, but I was hooked.
“I didn’t play until the fifth game, so I just watched how they advanced the ball up the field. I really don’t how to explain it, but after I started to play, it clicked and I started understanding the strategy.”
Simply put, the strategy is to score more points than the opponent and you do that two different ways: by grounding the ball (actually touching it to the turf) in the in-goal area (think end zone) with downward pressure — called a try or score and worth five points — or via a conversion, which can be attempted after a score by a placekick off either the bare ground or a tee. If the ball goes through the uprights, it’s a two-point score. The ball is then kicked back to the other team and play resumes.
McKenna plays a position called the the Number-8 in the second row while Rapaport plays either tighthead or loosehead prop.
“We just pretty much push in the scrum and maintain the line of scrimmage,” Rapaport explained.
“It’s a complete team sport unlike anything else I’ve ever played,” said McKenna. “Everyone is expected to contribute by tackling, running the ball hard and passing.
“You have to think about creating plays and mismatches and it’s all about creating opportunities for your teammates.”
Rapaport, who played football all four years at Bangor, came out for the sport at McKenna’s urging.
“I had no clue, but now it’s by far my favorite sport,” Rapaport said. “Probably the speed of the game is what I like the best. There are no breaks at all in rugby other than halftime. It’s constant action and it’s exciting.”
Springfield’s club team was one of eight out of 28 Eastern squads to play in the 22-team national tournament. In all, there are 136 club teams nationally.
“I had no idea the season would be like this, or how much I would be able to contribute,” Rapaport said.
While Rapaport has three more years to play and McKenna has spring season as his college rugby finale, both plan to play well beyond their college years.
“Most definitely. There’s a men’s league in Portland, so I’ll definitely keep playing,” McKenna said. “It’s my favorite sport by far.”