Members of the Old Blue Rugby Football Club are infamous within their sport, and that's the way they like it. They live up to a proud tradition: play to the edge of the rules, win at any cost and drink the other guys under the table at the beer party afterward. They were No. 1 (for the third time) in the Eastern Rugby Union last year but won no sportsmanship awards. At a recent tournament, the official program said of them: "Dressed appropriately in black (some would say the color of their souls), the Old Blue's rugby fifteen has earned the hatred, envy and despairing admiration of every team in the East."
That was no exaggeration. In one recent game an Old Blue player was stretched out on the field, unconscious. A fan of the other team, frustrated and angry as he stalked the sideline, said, "I don't want to sound like a bad sport, but I hope that man is dead."
The club's credo was written by Machiavelli. Intimidate the foe with those ominous jerseys. Make it a hard, nasty struggle within your own squad to win a first-string spot. Don't just tackle, but swarm on the ballcarrier like maddened wasps. In a scrum, when everybody is locked together, shoving, grunting and kicking at the ball, who's going to notice if you bite an opponent's ear? Whenever a dropkick by your side goes even remotely near the goal, influence the referee by throwing up your arms in triumphant joy before he has a chance to signal yes or no.
For a time Old Blue consisted almost exclusively of ex-Columbia students, but it has broadened its membership to include a rich variety of Americans and even some foreigners, such as Derek Bush, who played for Brazil's national team and was Rugby captain at Yale. David Hess is a guitarist, folk singer and songwriter. Bob Baden is comfortably retired at age 42 and has traveled around the world on a motorcycle. Captain Tom Haggerty was a Columbia halfback. Goldwater Republican Al Butts plays side by side in the backfield with conscientious objector Roger Dennis, an ex-pro football flanker who works for the Urban League in Harlem.
May 19, 1968
One of the Old Blue bounders, a roughneck named Bill Smith, writes oil-industry news for The New York Times, still plays Rugby and is, in fact, one of the best props in the East. He is well remembered at Columbia for leaping off the balcony at a banquet and landing on the dean's table. He was summoned to the good man's office the following Monday. "I thought when you landed, 'God, I hope it's a Princeton man,' " the dean told him, "but when you started to dance with me, I recognized you."
Apparently Columbia was a permissive sort of place even then, because Smith was not kicked out of school. He continued to be a rowdy rugger right into his alumni years and led Old Blue's 1966 tour of Great Britain, where it won six of nine games and all 20 of the beer parties.
As Machiavellian and Falstaffian as it is, Old Blue also has talent to spare. It probably gets the ball out from the scrum faster than any team in the U.S. The backfield is quick, the kicking is accurate and strong and the players know the rules better than most Britons. Obviously, Old Blue is a most consistent winner, the latest good example being the Commonwealth Cup tournament held a fortnight ago at the leafy University of Virginia.
"Commonwealth Cup" sounds like a grandiose sporting event, with a special box reserved for royalty, but it actually has no seats for anyone, no tickets, no jersey numbers and thus no scorecards, and not even much of a cup. The tournament trophy is a battered old pewter mug that was bought at an antique store for $5.25—only after the failure of a widespread search for a suitably well-worn spittoon.
Rugby is a casual sport, and the club at Virginia, which has nothing to do with the department of intercollegiate athletics and not much to do with training rules, tries to keep it that way. At the Commonwealth Cup tournament girls in miniskirts and men in Bermuda shorts lounged on a grassy hillside overlooking Nameless Field (that's its name). Dogs romped up and down the sidelines, and the goalposts were slapdash constructions of bamboo.
With Old Blue, the defending champ, and Virginia, the tourney entries included Williams College, U. of Wisconsin, Brown University, Baltimore Rugby Football Club, Toronto Old Boys and a club from Richmond, a last-minute substitute for the New Providence All-Stars from Nassau, who neglected to tell anyone they were not coming.
Fittingly, the title game on a sunny Sunday afternoon was between Old Blue and Virginia, two very different teams. The collegians were a mishmash of undergraduates, med students, law students and even an assistant professor of English, Alistair McKay Duckworth, who knows a lot about drop-kicking and 19th-century English novels. They were wearing brand-new dark-blue-and-orange-striped jerseys that were brought down from Canada by the Toronto Old Boys.
Mishmash or not, the Cavaliers of Virginia were tough and full of college spirit. Butch Dietler, one of Virginia's wings, was the school's intramural boxing champ. Inside Three-quarter Julian Raney led the Eastern Rugby Union in scoring last year.
Old Blue had several handicaps. There were not enough black jerseys brought along, so it was outfitted in blue-and-white stripes that looked much less terrifying. Two stars also were missing. John Wellington, Columbia's director of admissions, was busy with the student rebellion and Scrum Half Dick Donelli stayed home with his wife, who was expecting twins. Also, 14 kegs of beer had been consumed the night before at a rugger party.
The game had just gotten underway when Old Blue was saddled with another handicap. Virginia's Butch Dietler tackled Wing Harry Hersh and the collision caused every beer can in the vicinity (and there were many) to pop open by itself. Hersh was lying there, out cold, neatly holding the ball on his chest like a corpse holding a lily. He was taken to the university hospital with a concussion and did not return to action. There are no substitutes in Rugby, so Old Blue had to go with 14 men.
Almost immediately afterward Lineman Mike Shonstrom caught a hip with the top of his head and was knocked out. When he came to on the sideline he did not have the faintest idea where he was. Two down, 13 to go. The game was stopped nine times for injuries, seven of those to Blues.
Virginia took the lead when Alistair Duckworth made a dropkick from 20 yards out, but Old Blue couldn't get by the bamboo curtain at all in the first half, even though Shonstrom returned. The Cavaliers led 3-0.
A nifty play by Derek Bush tied it up just after half time. He was awarded a penalty kick about 10 yards out from the Virginia goal but at an impossible angle. He noticed the opposition backing up and talking among themselves, so he pulled a tricky little maneuver that is perfectly legal in Rugby. He kicked the ball a teeny bit, picked it up, faked to Tom Haggerty and raced for the end zone, diving in for the try. He missed the conversion.
Old Blue went ahead to stay when Carlos Blanco ("Just call me Charlie White") kicked a little squibber into the Virginia end zone and Bush fell on it for another try. And that is how it remained. Desperately kicking out of trouble, surreptitiously grabbing a Virginia jersey now and then in line-outs, constantly checking with the referee on the time remaining, Old Blue just did manage to hold off the Cavaliers from tying the score. When the ref blew his whistle after the second 40-minute half Virginia was within a few feet of the goal, but the score was still 6-3, Old Blue.
"I suppose it's an honor to be on the same field with Old Blue," said Professor Duckworth, as one of his young teammates sat on the grass nearby with his head buried in his arms, the picture of defeat and exhaustion.
Somehow Old Blue had forgotten to bring down the Commonwealth Cup from New York. Probably thought it would be such a bother to have to haul it back again. So Captain Tom Haggerty, in a ceremony conducted on the rear of a truck, was given a trophy perfectly symbolic of Rugby and Old Blue—an empty beer can.