Rugby enthusiast Joe Freedman claims that rugby is the "Rodney Dangerfield sport in this country."
"It gets no respect," said Freedman, the founder of the Arizona Rugby Union club known as the Cave Creek Critters.
"It’s the second-most popular sport in the world. We eventually get what we want, but we are a small fraternity."
Freedman and other rugby enthusiasts have good reason to believe that their sport is among the more neglected ones in the country. Fearing that players would hurt or even kill themselves, President Theodore Roosevelt tried to have the sport banned roughly 100 years ago, and it was taken out of the Olympics in 1924.
But Roosevelt and others failed to have the sport taken off the map, as there are currently more than 2,000 rugby clubs across the United States. In the Valley, clubs exist not only for men, but for women and children, and for the young and not-so-young.
The Arizona Union continues the tradition of rugby with teams as far away as Las Vegas and Yuma as well as several in the East Valley. The Union is divided into two divisions, with the Tempe Old Devils and the Red Mountain RFC among the six Division I clubs and Cave Creek, the Gilbert Warriors and the Scottsdale Blues among the six Division II clubs. Gilbert is the newest of the three, and Cave Creek is in its second season.
The regular season begins in January, but there are several tournaments beforehand, including one this weekend in Flagstaff and Critterfest, set for Dec. 4 at Scottsdale’s Chaparral Park, featuring several teams from across the country.
Freedman, 46, a player-coach, runs www.critterrugby.com in hopes of recruiting more players for his club while educating those interested on the history and etiquette of rugby.
"We understand the spirit of the sport and what it’s all about," he said.
Rugby is something of a cross between soccer and American football, but with no pads or helmets. Like football, players try to run over a goal line for a touchdown (literally a touchdown, as they have to touch the ball down to the ground), and, like soccer, the ball is kicked for points.
While many wonder why anyone would want to put their bodies through such pain and potential for injury, rugby enthusiasts view their sport as something of a religion.
For instance, it is tradition that the home team host the visiting team for an after-game party, something you won’t likely see in any other organized sport.
"We don’t eat or drink until every single player on the other team is served," said Freedman, whose Critters host their opponents at Shack in the Back, a somewhat hidden outdoor bar in the back of the the Buffalo Chip Saloon in Cave Creek.
And what happens on the field, stays on the field.
"Anything that happens on the field, we’ll forget about it," Freedman said, reflecting on one conversation he overheard. "One guy said, ‘Hey, weren’t you the guy that punched me in the face while the ref wasn’t watching?’ "
Freedman later witnessed the two dancing arm in arm while trying to balance beer bottles on top of their heads.
"It’s definitely more of a way of life than just a sport," said Mead, 34. "Often, you have to explain at work on a Monday why you have stitches in your face. People look at you funny when you have one red eye and you look as though you’ve been to hell and back."
Injuries are part of the game, and the better teams are loaded with depth. Typical aching areas: ribs, shoulders and knees.
"If you play rugby long enough, you’ll hurt every part of your body at some point in your life," said Freedman. "I’ve played all the other sports, and this is the best one. . . . It’s a team game. An individual does not drive the game. There’s a camaraderie between both teams."
Rugby will get you into shape, but it’s not for everybody.
"It takes a very tough human being," Freedman said.
• Youth: Gilbert Tigers, (480) 813-2020; Tempe Bulldogs, (480) 820-3688; Mesa Monsoons, (480) 844-0963; Chandler Compadres, (480) 899-8302