Adam Ries wore pads and a helmet when he played football for Morenci Area High School.
Now, on Davenport University’s rugby field, it’s just Adam and a ball—and 29 other rough-and-tumble ruggers ready to smash the daylights out of each other.
Rugby players do have the option of wearing some protective gear. For example, scrum caps (head protection) are worn by some players and they’re mandatory at Davenport if a player has suffered a head injury.
“We’ve had a lot of concussions,” Adam said, “and some people aren’t recovering correctly.”
Players are replaced when there’s an injury and they can temporarily leave the game to control bleeding, but all of this is what Adam finds so appealing about the sport.
“I like how physical the game is,” he said. “You need speed and endurance as well as physical and mental toughness.”
Rugby people are among the toughest people Adam has ever encountered. In a scrimmage this year, he collided with someone who split his scalp open from the impact.
“He went to the hospital and got four staples,” Adam said. “When he returned, he went back in the game.”
Adam was a student at Grand Valley State University when he first encountered the game. It’s a club sport there and anyone who pays dues can join.
A friend signed him up last winter and he attended some practice sessions. He played the spring season with Grand Valley and joined the Grand Rapids Gazelles for a summer league. The summer play opened Adam’s future.
The Davenport coaches were present at a Gazelles game and they were impressed with Adam’s skills.
“Kruger [van Biljon], the head coach, pulled me aside after the game and told me if I’d like to play for Davenport, I definitely could.”
“I actually played against him later in the summer,” Adam said. “We talked after the game and I got a few calls soon after for campus visits to Davenport. They offered me a scholarship and I accepted it.”
Joining Davenport’s program meant moving to an elite team. The Panthers are in only their second year, but they finished the regular season ranked sixth in the nation in Division I. They’re ranked ahead of many larger schools, ranging from Indiana University to Boston College, Miami of Ohio and Harvard.
Davenport, located southeast of Grand Rapids, has one of the few varsity rugby programs in the country. This allows the team to give out scholarships and receive normal benefits such as transportation, meals on game days, gear and athletic trainers.
With the regular season over, the Midwest Rugby Eastern Conference playoffs get underway Saturday in Elkhart, Ind. Davenport faces Indiana University. The Panthers won an earlier game, 37-20. A win Saturday would make Davenport eligible to compete in the national tournament.
The winner takes on the victor from the Bowling Green State University and Miami of Ohio match. Bowling Green is ranked first in the nation; Miami is ninth.
“They have a background and a lot of basic skills that I still have to develop,” he said. “What I like about it most is that it’s so challenging.”
Davenport is working hard to develop a championship program and Adam wants to be part of that effort.
“I just really enjoy the sport and the kind of people that are attracted to it,” he said, “because it takes a certain kind of person to play rugby.”
What is rugby?
Rugby is often described as a predecessor to American football, along with some soccer thrown in plus a whole lot of pushing and shoving. There are several similarities to football, along with some very stark differences.
There’s tackling in rugby and scoring is almost like a touchdown. It’s called a “try” and it’s worth five points. The ball must actually be touched down onto the grass. Three points can be scored by a successful penalty kick over the goal posts—similar to a football field goal.
A big difference from football arises in how the ball is moved toward the goal.
“The only ways to advance the ball are to run it or kick it, because all passes must be made backwards or laterally,” Adam explained. “Also, nobody can block for each other like you can in football, so when you have the ball there are 15 players on the other team trying to tackle you.”
Once the runner is tackled, the ball must be intentionally but gently fumbled. The ball carrier and tackler roll away from the ball to allow the next action to develop. Either someone picks up the ball and runs with it or a ruck forms, in which a few players from each team begin a shoving match, trying to push back the opposition.
The ball can’t be touched until it’s won by one team pushing the other back a step or two. If a stalemate is reached, either team may use its feet to roll the ball backwards, where a player known as the scrumhalf will pick up the ball and pass it backwards to other players.
There are no huddles or time-outs—just open play like in soccer or basketball through two 40-minute halves.
Adam’s position on the team is one of seven backs. The others are forwards—typically large, strong men who do most of the pushing and attacking with force. The backs, he said, attack with speed. Anyone on the team can carry the ball—most do during the course of a game—and anybody can score.
When a ball is thrown back in-bounds, a teammate from each team is lifted off the ground to fight for possession.
After certain penalties, a scrum is called in which the teams mass together to put the ball back in play (see photo). Only the two center players from each team have their legs inside the scrum. The centers are called hookers because they hook the ball backward with their feet.
Adam says the scrum is one of the most organized plays among all sports. He describes it this way: The commands by the sir (referee) to start the scrum are crouch (the players crouch); touch (the players on the ends touch each other to gauge distance); pause (everybody pauses); and engage, where everyone comes forward together.
Heads have to go in a certain place so that they don't break each other’s necks, Adam said.
“Basically everybody except two players have their legs back so they can drive the other team. A tunnel is created under their shoulders.”
The tunnel is created as a neutral means to enter the ball into play. The ball is rolled into the tunnel and played backward by the players with their feet until it comes out the back. Once the ball emerges, normal play resumes.
Confusing? Drive to Elkhart Saturday and watch the Panthers in action. Rent the movie “Invictus” for a look at rugby in action. The story presents Nelson Mandela’s first term as president of South Africa and shows how the 1995 Rugby World Cup helped bring the apartheid-torn population closer together.
Matt Damon is a star in the film, and that’s been Adam Ries’ nickname no matter which rugby team he playing for. His teammates always think Adam resembles the movie star.