Years back, and I mean years, a newly minted sports columnist from St. Paul was searching for a topic on a July 4th weekend and wound up at a rugby tournament on the grounds of Fort Snelling.
The competition among senior men’s clubs from around the Midwest was confusing. The colorful tents and the presence of the players’ kids running hither and yon was memorable, as was this comment:
“Rugby is a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen. Soccer is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans.”
As it turned out, that slur on soccer was as old as a rivalry between these two great English games that dates to early in the 19th century — when rugby was getting started and soccer was establishing its rules.
“It’s a slogan, but it also accurate from the standpoint of rugby,” Kate Johnson said. “Sportsmanship is very much part of rugby. There’s no barking at the referee. You will be penalized immediately if you do that. You compete fiercely, but also fairly.”
What! You wind up on the ground in rugby as a result of a legitimate collision, not because flopping is an art form?
“That’s right,” Johnson said. “You compete intensely and leave it on the field. Rugby is a community.”
That is certainly the case in the Twin Cities. For quite a while, that community was centered in south Minneapolis.
When Kate was young, her parents owned a home across the street from Nate Augspurger’s parents in the southwest part of the city. The fathers, Danny Johnson and Andy Augspurger, were teammates with the Minneapolis Rugby Club (now Metropolis RFC).
Garrett Bender lived 10 minutes away in the Washburn district. He played football for the Millers and had a football scholarship to St. Cloud State. He became disillusioned and decided to pursue rugby more seriously.
Johnson (23), Bender (23) and Augspurger (25) are current members of USA Rugby’s national teams for rugby sevens. Rugby is returning to the Olympics next summer for the first time since 1924 — with the rapid game of “sevens,” rather than the traditional 15-player game of Rugby Union football.
The United States has qualified to be among the 12 teams in Rio de Janeiro in both women’s and men’s rugby. Johnson, Bender and Augspurger are in position to be there.
First, there is the competition in the Pan-Am Games in Toronto. The gold medals will be decided on the opening weekend, July 11-12.
If the timeouts and reviews in the last two minutes of an NBA game drive you nuts, if baseball moves too slow, Johnson, Bender and Augspurger have the game for you:
“There are two seven-minute halves, and a two-minute halftime, so that’s it … 16 minutes,” Bender said.
“Running time,” he said. “Same size of field, with half as many players. Lots of wide-open spaces. There’s no walking around. The scrums take seconds. It’s constant running ... very exhausting.”
Sixteen minutes. Bad for beer sales. Great for newspaper deadlines.
• • •
KATE JOHNSON was destined for rugby from her mother’s delivery room Oct. 25, 1991. Her father is so connected to rugby here that the mention of “DJ” means Danny Johnson to everyone involved, and her mother, Jenny, played for the University of Minnesota club team.
Kate and Nate were among the kids hanging out on the Fort Snelling grounds for the big summer rugby tournament. Their older brothers, Nick Johnson and Sam Augspurger, were also excellent rugby players.
A few miles away, Bender had no family connection to rugby. He was encouraged by a friend, Lucas McCabe, to join a team called the South Side Barbarians. He got to know Johnson and Augspurger when they started playing sevens for the Youngbloodz, a team coached by Sam Robinson, a Samoan.
“I think we all would agree that, as much as anyone, Sam has guided us in our success in the seven-player game,” Augspurger said.
There are three forwards and four backs in sevens. Two of the forwards are called “props” and the other “the hooker.” The backs are the scrum half, fly half, center and fullback.
Bender is a prop. So is Johnson. They are also boyfriend and girlfriend. Augspurger is a scrum half. The trio is now at the USA Rugby training center in Chula Vista, Calif., sweating through workouts in that warm location near the Mexican border.
Bender is delighted to be there … delighted to have walked away from football, scholarship and all.
“What drew me to rugby was the competition but also the overall respect,” Bender said. “You’re supposed to hate an opponent in football. In rugby, you respect an opponent. You compete against one another to exhaustion, and then someone will probably throw a barbecue after the game.
“Rugby players are a different breed. They are the best people I’ve ever met.”
Such good people that they don’t even flop.