Rugby is that sport you’ve heard about your whole life, and yet you also probably have no idea how it works. Here’s the problem: there are actually two different kinds of rugby, and you’ve been watching the much more complicated one. Rugby union is that more famous version you see a lot in college, but rugby league is its intense, hard-hitting sibling. League may be up-and-coming here, but it has a massive following in its birthplace of Australia. I talked with Joseph Cesario, a native of Central Jersey who now plays forward on the Philadelphia Fight, at length about the rugby league phenomenon.
Rugby itself started in 19th century England. For both rugby union, which came first, and rugby league, developed later on, the basic goal is to score more points than the other team by either kicking the ball through the opponent’s goal posts or preferably through a try: placing the ball down on or past the opponent’s goal line. To accomplish this, teams work together to advance the ball up field through backward and sideways passing (never forward), or kicking it, and then holding the ball and running. The other team stops the ball-carrier by tackling.
The similarities between league and union mostly end there. First off, league has only 13 players per side while union has 15. Second, point values for tries and the various kicks are slightly different. There is also a structured set of downs in league, similar to American football. This occurs based on what happens after a ruck, or successful tackle. In union, a player that is tackled must let go of the ball, in such a way that hopefully a teammate can pick it up, although an opponent certainly could as well.
In rugby league, rucks are contested by having the person who's been tackled roll the ball back through the gate of his or her own feet in control while defense must retreat 10 meters. This may seem unfair to the defense, but the offense only has six “downs” (tackles) to score, otherwise they must give the ball up to the other team, just like a “turnover on downs” in football. This means, “there are a lot of kicks performed on fourth and fifth down,” in order to attempt having a better field advantage on defense or to create a scoring opportunity on offense.
These distinctions are what first made rugby league appeal to Joe. Like many of us, he had seen rugby union before and was more confused than entertained. “My aunt was playing for Westchester. I didn’t understand anything, what a maul was or any of the stuff going on. I just saw my aunt getting squeezed on both sides and she’s trying to feed the ball back through people’s arms, and I’m like ‘What is going on?’”
So years later when his lifting partner was hounding him to try rugby league, Joe was unenthusiastic. “You have to apply [your gym training] to something,” he’d say. “Come play rugby. It would be a good fit for you.” Eventually Joe agreed to come out and watch his friend’s team, the Philadelphia Fight, in a match. That match happened to be their victory in the 2011 USA Rugby League National Championship in the middle of a hurricane. “I got hooked and told the coach that I’d be out next season.”
He’s been on the team ever since, which is saying a lot about his commitment to a sport like this. With no helmets or pads and an average total of 300 tackles in one game, rugby league is something you really must want to do. "Even at practice the training can be so intense that the most fit of athletes can have their breaking point, whether it's from a lingering injury, or having an off day. We compete at every practice for our positions that week and, as much comradery as we share, we always must be prepared to have to compete against our friend for a spot on the roster." It’s that accountability to the team at large that keeps everybody going. “They make me accountable and we’re all accountable to each other.”
“The Fight is a family,” said Joe. “We’re all involved in each other’s lives.” They keep a group chat going and "even though we only compete in the summer we have get-togethers year-round”.
So come check out a thrilling Fight game sometime, either at A. A. Garthwaite Stadium in Philadelphia or away in places like Boston or Delaware. Check out their website, fightrugby.com, for their full schedule, news, photos, and more.