A dark overcast sky hung over the Jeffrey Dibble Soccer Complex last Thursday in South Sioux City. The roads were damp and glistened whenever the sun managed to peek from behind those torrential clouds. It looked like it could pour down at any minute. Large, muddy puddles accumulated in every practice field. No one in their right mind would play a game in this muck -- unless those people were rugby players.
Sure enough, about a dozen guys wearing loose T-shirts and shorts had gathered in the last practice field just south of the water tower near Riverview Drive. They were tossing around what appeared to be an enlarged white football, making jokes and trying to show off. All of them are members of the Siouxland Swine rugby team.
Almost immediately, I was asked if I wanted to join in on the practice. Wearing an old pair of Converse shoes and holey blue jeans, I was not well equipped for such an activity -- so I declined. But that’s just how they roll; practices are open to anybody and everybody. No experience is necessary. Everyone is welcome to join or contribute to the rugby team. It’s been that way for years.
Brett Barker, 29, knew nothing about the sport when he first joined the team eight years ago. He dedicated four years to the Siouxland Swine before taking time off to focus on college. This year he’s back and ready to play once more.
“We’ve always had a lot of fun,” Barker said as his teammates practiced line formations on the muddy field nearby. “It’s one of the most physical sports you can do. I can’t think of a better way to get back into shape or work out. If you want to release a little bit of aggression and really tackle somebody on the field, that’s always pretty fun, too.”
Rugby, for those who don’t know, is kind of like a mix between soccer and football. It’s an aggressive full contact sport involving two opposing teams. Players run up the field with ball in hand in an attempt to ground the ball on the opposition’s goal area. The defending team does everything it can to stop the other team from scoring, which means a lot of tackles. And a lot of blood.
“Oh yeah, you almost see blood every match,” said Barker. “A lot of that comes back to experience. Once you get to know the game, you know how to play safer and smarter.
“Sometimes you get newer guys out there and they just want to run and truck everybody over. After a while, you learn that’s not the best thing to do. You can knock somebody on their ass one time, but then your shoulder hurts for two weeks. You learn how to tackle well and progress. That all comes with time.”
Barker added that he’s been blessed and hasn’t suffered too many serious injuries. His teammate Avery Lone Wolf, 26, on the other hand has experienced his fair share of bumps and bruises.
“I’ve been playing rugby for five years and I think I’ve been injured for five years,” said Lone Wolf with a laugh. “I’ve had a multitude of injuries -- a knee injury, a broken ankle, a dislocated shoulder and dislocated jaw. And it still happens! And I’m still at it.”
Despite his numerous and -- judging by the knee brace he was wearing -- current injuries, Lone Wolf still finds himself at Siouxland Swine practices nearly every week for the past five years. He was exposed to the sport while he was enrolled in nursing school. Like Barker, he had no idea how rugby worked. Lone Wolf also didn’t play football in high school. The entire sport was foreign to him.
“It was a lot more physical than I thought it was going to be,” he said. “It honestly took me about 2 1/2 years to figure out what I was doing properly. That was just through playing a lot. You really don’t understand the game until you actually play it.”
And yet he stuck with it. Why? There was something about playing the sport with his teammates that made it all worthwhile.
“A lot of these guys I’ve been playing with for a while,” said Lone Wolf. “For them to sort of give me a responsibility and let me play with them is one of the reasons why I stuck around. I’ll probably be around rugby as long as I can regardless if I play or not.”
Rugby puts Lone Wolf’s athleticism and dedication to the test. The sport demands that he play with his teammates for 80-minute games and to constantly learn new things about himself, his team or the opposing team. The same can be said for veteran Siouxland Swine players.
“Even now, you have guys that have been playing for 10 years and are still learning a couple new things,” said Lone Wolf. “Regardless of what level you play, I don’t think you ever stop learning. The beauty about playing rugby is you play alongside people with a lot of different experience levels. Some teams are more social and casual with playing, and then there are some teams that we play against that are a lot more competitive.”
It’s the guys Lone Wolf plays with that make it “a lot more interesting.” He points to newcomer Blake Anderson for showing unrivaled commitment to Siouxland Swine. The stout 23-year-old played offensive guard for the Morningside College football team before he joined the local rugby team in early March. Anderson has since graduated and was looking for that familiar team atmosphere he had grown accustomed to as well as a medium to channel his athleticism.
As a fully equipped football player, Anderson was rendered almost immobile. Since rugby players don’t wear any protective gear apart from a mouth piece and cleats, Anderson thought he’d give the sport a shot.
“I’ve always been super interested in rugby,” he said. “It’s drastically different from football, but there are some overlapping skills. Overall, it’s all about learning the game and using the tactics I’ve picked up from playing a ton of years in football.”
Does Anderson feel unleashed? Hell yes he does.
“For me, it feels more empowering, whereas for most it might feel the opposite,” he said. “When a guy is coming at you, you might be like, ‘Oh sh**!’ You’re going to feel it. That’s what I like. I like not having the protective gear. I’m more athletic that way.”
Playing rugby gives Anderson something to physically strive for. It gives working out and weightlifting a purpose now. The camaraderie helps, too. Anderson has met a new group of people thanks to Siouxland Swine. People like Lone Wolf who enjoys being around his teammates through the good and the bad times. Together, they suffer and sweat through 80 minutes of aggressive matches. They all go through the same amount of pain and growth.
“Sometimes we’re against each other and we also like to argue and bicker like brothers do,” said Lone Wolf. “And then at times we all can perfectly get along and be on our best behavior. Win or lose, at the end of the day you’re still a team. We all get beat up and are able to keep going back for more.”