Photographs by Scott K. Brown
Photographs by Scott K. Brown

The men’s rugby club huddled in the claustrophobic confines of Millhiser Gymnasium. It was not a night to be out on the field. As the sun receded behind the University’s pines, so too did the temperatures, which crept into the 20s. At 5:30, practice began, and the players began jogging around the gym. It was Jan. 28, only 23 days until the first game of the spring, against VCU.

The coaches watched the players closely. Carl Schmitt, the head coach, a large man with a tired face whose hair is perpetually hidden under a baseball cap, is in his 16th year at Richmond.

“Don’t cut corners!” he yelled, before letting out a throaty barrage of invective — his trademark.

Bill Strauss, an assistant coach, stood to Schmitt’s right, a short man with salt-and-pepper hair who smiles easily and jokingly refers to himself as “the good-looking coach.” Strauss, who joined the staff in 2013, coaches the forwards, who are similar to NFL linebackers.

Matt Willson, the second assistant coach, stood to Schmitt’s left. Willson is a short but hulking mass of a man with long, silver locks and a beard. A child of South London, he has an accent that lends him an air of diplomatic gravitas. Willson is in his 15th year at Richmond and coaches the backs, who are similar to running backs or wide receivers in the NFL.

Most of the players, from the lanky ones with gangly arms and bony legs to the stocky ones with awkward gaits, are relatively small.

“We’re not a huge team,” Schmitt said. “So we have to think of new ways to win.”

Abbas Abid, a sophomore and the vice president of the team, plays wing — one of the backs on whom the team most heavily depends for running, catching, and passing. Outside of rugby, he’s a member of the Muslim Student Association and the Theta Chi fraternity. Like many of his teammates, Abid is short and skinny. But he and his teammates make up for it.

“Ninety percent of the team is in the gym every day of the week,” he said. “We do team workouts four to five times a week for 90 minutes.”

Those workouts focus on cardio, Abid said, because rugby requires 80 minutes of running virtually nonstop, an unforgiving slog.

As the players circled the gym in practice, running in a single-file line, Schmitt tossed a rugby ball — which looks like a symmetrical Easter egg — to the player at the head of the group. He instructed the players to lob the ball back to one another, preparing them for what Abid said was a counterintuitive rule: Passes must be thrown backwards.

“We’ve only got two weeks until VCU,” Schmitt said as he closed practice. “And they’re pretty good.”

Anticipation
On Feb. 11, nine days until VCU, the team — relegated once again to Millhiser, amid temperatures in the 20s — started quickly. There was no time to waste. The backs worked on passing, dropping passes frequently and inciting eye-rolling from Willson.

But a buzz hovered over practice. Players gathered around and gibed with Michael Ephraums, a former exchange student from Australia, who played rugby during the fall 2015 semester. He was back in the U.S. for an interview and decided to drop by practice.

Ephraums grew up playing rugby in Sydney, where the culture surrounding the sport is drastically different from what he encountered at Richmond.

“At home, even if you don’t play, you know how to play,” he said, whereas in the United States, very few people know much about the sport.

Ephraums was attracted to the club by the same thing that attracted Ndegwa Nyoike, a senior from Kenya: social life. Nyoike, a jovial, cerebral athlete — he attends the University as an Oldham Scholar — calls himself a “confused player” because of his continually evolving position on the team. He started playing in sixth grade.

“Back home it’s very intense,” Nyoike said. “So coming here, it was more social. It’s more for fun. You kind of get this connection.”

Virtually every player points to social life as a central motivation for joining the club team. Most of them knew nothing about it before college. Rugby helps them find their place.

Stacy Warner, a kinesiology professor at East Carolina University, has done extensive research on club sports, which she said serve an important function in students’ social lives.

“To build community, people need an outlet or social space,” Warner said. “Club sports are ideal for providing that for people who share a common interest.”

Ephraums spent $50 and took a seven-hour bus trip to Richmond, but he didn’t regret it.

“It’s worth it to see the boys,” he said.

Game Day
Feb. 20 arrived, the day of the VCU match. The players were jittery. What better way to open the spring season than to claim victory in a hometown rivalry?

But their best-laid plans went awry, and they lost at home, 29-23. The defense struggled, failing to make tackles in the big moments.

“It was a very, very good game,” Schmitt said, putting an optimistic spin on the outcome. “It was evenly matched. A lot of people showed a lot of promise. So we’re not at all worried.”

Schmitt should know. He has 35 years of rugby experience, starting in 1981, when he “left college on sabbatical” and joined a local Richmond men’s rugby club. Coach Strauss played for an opposing team, and the two became lifelong friends.

While Schmitt and Strauss battled each other in the Richmond league, Willson enjoyed a successful career playing in English clubs, only a few levels down from the international league, before suffering a career-ending neck injury at age 29.

The coaches, with their wealth of experience, know when to be concerned. After the VCU game, they weren’t.

Matt Menzie, a first-year student playing fly half — the rugby equivalent of a quarterback — for the first time, was battered and bloodied, with a nearly broken nose, but he gave his team a chance to win and walked away as the MVP of the game.

“He survived,” Schmitt said, “and played very well at a very difficult position that he had never played before.”

Menzie’s appearance — he looks like a grown-up Opie Taylor — belies his ferocity in the game. His friends say he has a quirky sense of humor that’s absent in the midst of rugby’s intensity.

The VCU game wasn’t an ideal opening to the spring season, but with talented young players like Menzie, the team saw reason for hope, or so it thought.

Bleed Richmond
The following Saturday brought a home match against Virginia Tech. Janus Cataluna-Palma had a determined look as he watched his opponents warming up. He is a sophomore who plays hooker and, at 5 feet 5 inches tall and 185 pounds, is built like a fire hydrant. He takes the game seriously and refuses to let the social aspects compromise his competitiveness. Matches like this force him to remember.

He remembers the Duke Blue Devils, whom Richmond played in the fall. The Spiders were dismantled, losing 87-3. It was an embarrassment for which the club paid with a grueling practice.
“If I had a moment when I wanted to quit, that was it,” he said.

Cataluna-Palma stared down the Virginia Tech players as they warmed up. He wasn’t going to let the club lose to a big, well-known university. Not again.

It was an inauspicious beginning. An hour before game time, only 11 players were present. Fifteen were needed.

Menzie was late.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his eyes trained on the ground as he ran to Schmitt.

“‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t feed the bulldog,” Schmitt said — with an additional expletive.

Nick Lawler is a junior who serves as the club president and plays flanker, a position without many explicit responsibilities. Like Cataluna-Palma, he treats the game with an intense seriousness, though he interacts with his teammates with a sly, sardonic sense of humor.

On this day, he wasn’t joking around. Irritated, he called and texted his teammates, imploring them to get to the field. After a week of poorly attended practices, this was a bad start.

And it got worse. As coach Willson removed the team’s shirts from a bag, he winced, his brows knit with confusion.

“Have the shirts been washed this week?”

Silence.

“Were they washed last week?”

Silence.
“How about a response?”

Several players murmured — no.

“Give me one reason I should stay,” he said — with an additional expletive. The players sat in an awkward silence. Across the field, 22 Virginia Tech players warmed up as several Spiders hoisted the goal posts, looking distinctly like Marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima.

By 12:30, the Spiders had assembled 18 players. The temperature hovered around 50 degrees, with the warmth of the sun battling the uncomfortable chill of the breeze. The team huddled together as a sizable audience watched from the sidelines.

Strauss pointed at the Virginia Tech players. “They’re big, but they’re soft,” he said. Then he chided the team for its lack of tackling against VCU.

“This is a thinking man’s game,” he said, before pointing to the younger players, like Menzie. “Protect these guys. They’re the future of the club.”

And with that, the Spiders were staring down the Hokies. The physical contrast was clear; Virginia Tech’s brawny club towered over Richmond’s.

The players remembered Strauss’ words: This was Tech’s developmental team. They were big, but soft.

Within the first minute of a 40-minute half, Virginia Tech scored a try — the rugby equivalent of a touchdown, which requires players to literally touch the ball down in the goal area, for five points. With the additional kick, the score was 7-0 Virginia Tech.

On its second possession, Virginia Tech marched down the field again, meeting little defensive coverage. With the try and a missed kick, the score was 12-0. Soon enough, Virginia Tech scored its third try, bringing the score to 17-0.

Richmond looked listless. The Hokies weren’t that soft after all.

Lawler ran around to his teammates, dazed and incensed.

“Wake up!” he screamed — with an additional expletive.

At the 28-minute mark, Richmond showed signs of life. Abid encroached on the goal before being knocked to the ground and turning the ball over. Murmurs of doubt emanated from the audience.

“Richmond just isn’t built for this,” someone said.

The Hokies looked unstoppable. Before long, they made it 24-0. With 10 minutes left in the first half, they scored yet another try and missed a kick. 29-0.

“They’re very good at running very hard,” Willson said. It was an understatement.

Imperceptibly, Richmond leveraged the momentum in its favor, circumventing the defense, pushing hard to the goal. Danny Simmons, a sophomore who plays center — the main offensive force, who usually gets the ball first — slipped around the defense and sprinted for the goal. Simmons — a Jersey boy with finely groomed short hair — is a paragon of cool confidence, but in this game, he had looked nervous. But now he was close, and Richmond was about to score its first try. Then the Tech defenders slammed into Simmons, forcing him to pass. In the commotion, the ball tumbled. Virginia Tech recovered and ran it all the way down the field.

The score was 34-0 at the end of the first half.

Football players in the crowd jokingly warmed up as Strauss told them to get ready. Willson was fuming.

“If you see hands on the ball, stomp on them,” he said. “It’s not tiddlywinks, boys. Liven up.” He added an expletive.

Lawler cursed himself and threw his water bottle to the ground in a moment of raw frustration. Sam Groner, a lock — a forward who helps regain possession when the ball is put back into play — was also inconsolable. A tall sophomore who also hikes and snowboards, could only watch from the sidelines because he was injured.

“He feels like he’s letting his team down,” Willson said, before consoling Groner. He tried to convince him that he was doing the right thing by staying out and putting his health first. But it wasn’t easy. Willson patted him on the back.

“You have two weeks,” he said. “Maybe you can use that time to clean the shirts.”

The start of the second half was hopeful for Richmond. For the first four minutes, the defense shut down the Virginia Tech offense. But then the Hokies broke through the coverage and scored yet another try and a kick. The score was 41-0 with 35 minutes to go. Richmond was catching on, but not fast enough. Virginia Tech scored again.

At the 25-minute mark, Simmons got the ball. He saw an opening in the defense, and he capitalized on it. He pushed through in a brutal run, scrambling to the goal. For the first time all day, Richmond had put points on the board. Menzie, kicking, made it 48-7 with 25 minutes to go.

But Virginia Tech, as it had all afternoon, responded. Six or seven Spiders pushed in vain to stop one runner, who had the strength enough to push back and score.

Cataluna-Palma was frustrated. He couldn’t let the team lose — not like this, anyway. He gained possession of the ball and pushed forward, swinging around defenders and working his way to the goal. With the kick, the score was 55-14.

With 15 minutes left in the match, Richmond once again seemed to have some momentum. But Virginia Tech reclaimed it decisively, running down the field with virtually no opposition. The score was 62-14 with 10 minutes left, during which neither team managed anything offensively. The match ended with a whimper.

The Spiders were dejected. They walked gingerly, wincing, in pain. The mood was somber.

“I feel awful,” Cataluna-Palma said. “I feel like that was actually their team,” referring to Tech’s D-I squad.

But Schmitt wanted his team to see the game from a different perspective.

“I’m really, really proud,” he said. “You never gave up.”

And then Lawler addressed the team.

“I’m sorry I had to come out,” he said. “Thank God they turned off the scoreboard.”

“You have so much freaking potential,” Schmitt said.

“We’ve got to get the guys out here,” Lawler said. His teammates nodded. If theirs was to be a community, it needed everyone’s support.

On the count of three, the club roared “Bleed Richmond” and began to move forward.

The Spiders had been dismantled by yet another big opponent. But young players had shown promise, and the team improved in the second half. With Saturday night approaching, this was reason enough to celebrate. Practice on Tuesday would not be fun, but the spring had just begun.

They had 21 days to prepare for the Captains of Christopher Newport University.

Damian Hondares is a writer in the communications office who double-majors in journalism and American studies. He has a hard head that’s perfectly suited for rugby; his 12th-grade gym teacher forbade him from playing floor hockey after multiple head-to-head collisions.

[Editor’s note: After the Virginia Tech game, the Spiders put together back-to-back home wins, beating Christopher Newport 31-24 and William & Mary 46-31. Go Spiders!]