For members of the Brandywine Rugby Club (BRC), nothing is better than being “put out to pasture.”
“The Pasture” is what they call their field — or “pitch” in rugby-speak — on Howell Moore Road. Granted to them by Dixon Stroud on the condition that they clear, mow, and maintain it, it’s a welcome change from the elementary schools and parks the first players, West Chester University alumni, shuffled between as early as 1983. And with their renovation it has become one of the best pitches in the league.
The Pasture is also where the club’s founding father, Scott Johnson, held his wedding — between games, in standard rugby attire save for an added tuxedo jacket.
“We played again right after the wedding, and one of our guys, Sean Warner, broke his leg,” recalled Steve Martino, the club’s current president. “The snap was so loud, some guests on the sideline began to feel a bit unwell.” Martino retired after he broke his own leg at a Rehoboth Beach tournament in 1998.
Martino started playing in college. He played football his first year at WCU but found he didn’t enjoy the atmosphere. The following spring, he saw a sign hanging in his dorm hall: “Like to play sports? Like to drink beer? Play Rugby.” He gave it a try. “The guys were competitive, but really cool and liked to have fun. It was like a brotherhood.”
Rugby had a similar effect on coach and former player Chris Vely. He was also attending WCU when a couple of friends from high school convinced him to come out for a game. “Football, baseball, tennis, soccer, swimming,” he counted off the sports he’s taken up. “One game of rugby and I was hooked.”
The players” ages range from 20s to 40s, and they’re from different backgrounds. What they have in common, besides the beer and fun, is playing hard. The physical and cerebral difficulty of the sport is what Vely loves about it: the two 40-minute halves with primarily blood substitutions, necessitating serious conditioning and on-the-fly adjustments in strategy. Off the pitch, there’s lifting and running. It’s a year-round commitment — it takes work.
The work BRC puts in has paid off. It has been in the National Elite 8 the past three years and came in second in the nation in 2008. Vely spoke fondly of the club’s visit to Scotland as part of their tour in 2001 — a far cry from the days the guys didn’t have their own field or always enough players for a game.
These are literally marked accomplishments — there’s no modesty in rugby, and it becomes obvious who plays. “They say soccer is a gentlemen’s sport played by hooligans, and rugby is a hooligan sport played by gentlemen,” recounted Martino, who juggled a lucrative marketing career in Philadelphia with playing.
“It was difficult at times, hiding a limp or a fat lip,” he said. “You could shrug it off, saying you got hurt playing with your son over the weekend, but coming in on crutches or with a busted nose to a sales meeting always raised questions about your character.” The few who knew anything about the sport thought he was crazy. “It didn’t mesh well with corporate life.”
Those who stay on to help run the team after retiring face new difficulties. “The coaches do not get paid. They do it out of their love for competition and the game,” Martino said. Vely gets a lot of satisfaction from seeing players progress as he did for more than two and a half decades. But as Martino said, “Union fees, referee fees, uniforms, training facility rentals, and travel expenses all add up.” The club currently has two sponsors, Folio Wines and The Whip Tavern, but it would love to have more.[quote]
Its financial struggles haven’t stopped the club from giving back. On May 14, it hosts “Scrum for 6,” its annual fundraiser for sufferers of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, in memory of Mike Bartone, the former number-six player who died from the disease. Beginning at 11am and continuing throughout the day, there’s an Old Boys” (over 35), a men’s A&B, and a women’s game. BRC charges admission and sells T-shirts and refreshments, with proceeds going directly to the ALS foundation. So far it’s raised more than $100,000.
BRC is a member of the EPRU (Eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Union), which in turn is a member of MARFU (Mid Atlantic Rugby Football Union), governed by USA Rugby. Though the club can count on its “Old Boys” for support, it’s always happy to see fresh faces. Chester County is a hotbed for rugby in the U.S., and Vely is certain the sport’s popularity will continue to grow as more people give it a chance. Come out to The Pasture on May 7 and 8, when BRC hosts the MARFU Championship to determine who goes to nationals.