“It’s combining the passion, tactics and continuous play of soccer with the hard-hitting action of American football,” Mark Anthony describes of rugby. He’s one of the players for Cape Fear Rugby 7s’ Old Boys team—one of many within the nonprofit Cape Fear Rugby Football Club. The club, founded in 1974, also includes female and high school teams.
As a huge fan of sports in general, Anthony only imagined himself being a spectator since he injured his knee during his Navy career. He had attended Rugby 7s events for the past eight years before a club board member approached him at Waterline Brewing (for which Anthony manages).
“[He] asked if I would like to play with them,” Anthony retells. “Being 35 years old, out of shape and having a bad knee, of course, I said, ‘Heck, yes!’ It was kind of nerve-wracking to join such a close-knit group without knowing how to play, but the team is 100-percent supportive in helping me learn; the camaraderie is as close to the military as I’ve found.”
Rugby is a combination of both soccer and football blended together. Each team starts with 15 players, all of whom have an objective to get the ball to the goal, which is at either end of the field. It’s a contact sport, so, there is tackling involved. Player positions vary. There’s prop, who makes first contact with the opposition; hooker, who is responsible for making the big decisions on the field; flanker, who fights to win the ball during altercations; and fullback, who handles the ball most often, as well as runs the field.
“Rugby 7s is American football minus everything soccer fans say sucks about American football,” describes Robert Bogen, who has been event planning for the club since 1980 and has acted as tournament director since 2016. “It is soccer minus everything American soccer fans say sucks about soccer. Rugby keeps its violence on the field, unlike soccer, and doesn’t apologize for it like the NFL. The rugby culture is all-inclusive, too; ruggers don’t care if you’re black, white, tall, short, gay, straight, fat, skinny, or even if you suck at rugby. If you can take the beating, you are welcome to play.”
While Anthony can play various positions on the field, he typically sticks to forward. His main responsibility is to charge ahead and hit any opponent coming for the ball. Other times, he hangs out in the front row and supports the hooker—one of the team’s forwards who is responsible for passing the ball down the field or running with it. The hooker also must obtain the ball during rucks and mauls. Rucks occur when a ball-carrying player falls to the ground and there is a mass pile-up of players. Mauls consist of about three players making contact while the ball is off the ground.
Anthony admits, “Although, I always loved watching the backs make long runs for tries [a score by grounding the ball within the goal, I’ve grown to love playing a role of going straight [toward the opposition] and hitting everything in my path [to protect the ball].”
The 7s practice at Fly Trap Downs, the field on Lake Drive and Chestnut Street, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Most recently, they’ve been preparing for the 44th annual Cape Fear Rugby 7s Tournament. It’s one of the largest rugby-sanctioned tourneys in the nation. For 2018 the roster includes participants from all over, including the Moseley Rugby Club from Birmingham, England, and a women’s team from Berkeley, California.
“To my surprise we should exceed 70 teams,” Bogen tells. “For the first time this year we will exhibit a high-school girls division. It will be the third year of our High School Boys Championship, so it’s growing, and their skills and knowledge of the game are very inspiring.”
Bogen recruits teams and helps organize events, as well as oversees community outreach and support of other nonprofits. The Cape Fear Rugby Football Club has created a competitive food drive to benefit NourishNC, a local nonprofit focused on feeding children in New Hanover County.
“We are challenging all teams to bring canned food items [to the tournament],” explains Charlie Blanton, the club’s VP. “Whichever team brings the most [from 9 a.m. to noon on July 8] will receive sa $200 credit toward Cape Fear 7s entry fee for 2019. Spectators are encouraged to bring donations as well [no candy, sugary drinks or glass containers]”
The club also is raising funds to start an elementary league for inner-city kids. Players have participated in building and repairing projects for the Wilmington Area Rebuilding Mission (WARM). WARM’s mission is to complete urgent repairs or create accessibility upgrades for seniors or folks with physical challenges.
Naturally, they’re interested in recruiting new players, and the women’s team is currently looking to increase their player roster. “There is a place for everyone in the rugby club,” Blanton says. “Rugby by nature is a sport of camaraderie. We charge an annual membership fee, but the first couple of months are free to try out.”
In addition to players, the club is seeking new sponsors and donors always. A major struggle is the beaten-up equipment, such as tackle pads and goal pads, which will need replacing soon. They need a new storage unit to store the equipment, too, since their current location is leaking.
“We have a long-range goal of building a real clubhouse at our field to help with socials, storing equipment, training new players, and renting out to the public for events,” Blanton tells. “The biggest support we can get is having a loud crowd of spectators at our home games. Nothing makes us play better.”
Sponsors and team entry fees will help fund equipment updates, field maintenance and programming for the club. $8,000 in prize money will be awarded at the tournament.