MILWAUKEE — On a windswept pitch by the shoreline of Lake Michigan, a weekend tradition endures. With the lower east side nestled on the bluff above showing signs of life and the wings of the Calatrava monument unfurled in the distance, a group of some of Wisconsin’s most embattled and unheralded athletes meets every Saturday for what always promises to be a gritty fight over this piece lakefront real estate.
It’s spring at McKinley Marina, and rugby season is in full swing.
Despite the sport’s widespread popularity overseas, it remains a curious spectacle to even the most rabid American sports enthusiasts. Yet, for the hundreds of Wisconsinites who take up the charge of carrying on the rugby legacy, the game constitutes a passion becoming more prevalent by the year. From Milwaukee to the north woods, fierce matches abound on pitches just like the one at McKinley Marina.
“Wisconsin rugby is a cult-like fraternity, with membership earned with blood and sweat,” UW-Parkside inside center Todd Streeter explained. “Throughout the years, I’ve made friends with players from literally every other UW campus. The camaraderie is unparalleled.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Milwaukee RFC’s landmark national title run and the scene in Wisconsin couldn’t be more vibrant. With programs sprouting up in campuses across the state, the local clubs of elder ruggers find a bevy of collegiate squads to square off against during the spring months. Under the framework of the Wisconsin Rugby Football Union, league members test their mettle against a wealth of in-state opponents in preparation for their respective regional and national tournaments in the fall.
But as any center or flyhalf will promptly make clear, the spring represents more than just an exhibition season. Jockeying for honor and the chance to improve, the college teams relish the opportunity to weigh in against their more seasoned counterparts.
“When going up against teams that have players that have been playing for as long as many of those guys have, you really get to see what experience and knowledge brings to the game,” UW-Madison fullback Ryan Meyer said. “If you don’t take your game to the same level, you can’t compete with teams like that, so it forces us to both learn and play a better game of rugby.”
The Wisconsin rugby community is already enjoying a noteworthy year after the Wisconsin men’s select side team emerged from the regional pack as Midwest LAU Champions. Compiled as an all-star team of Wisconsin collegiate players, the squad rolled past Minnesota in the finals behind the stellar play of UW-Madison scrumhalf Dave Scheid.
Scheid opened up an early scoring opportunity by forcing a Minnesota forward into a bad pass as Wisconsin captured a 7-5 advantage. Later in the game, the junior scrumhalf broke loose to try to ice the match, which Wisconsin won by a final score of 21-12. The title was the first claimed by a Wisconsin select side team in more than a decade.
The spring action continues this weekend as Dairy State ruggers converge on the western suburb of Hartland for the Milwaukee Cup, an annual tournament of Wisconsin collegiate rugby teams vying for bragging rights within the community. In addition to the usual suspects hunting the coveted title, the event provides an opportunity for newcomers to make their mark.
In a game of fast breaks — where a squad’s fortune can change as quickly as the Garryowen falls — the chance to shine exists for any prospective Cinderella unafraid to lose a slipper in the mud.
“This tournament helps any team to make a name for themselves,” Milwaukee School of Engineering flanker Matt Dictus said. “If a team can go into this tournament and completely dominate every other team, that fact will stick around in the fall.”
In the wake of a regional Final Four appearance last fall, the University of Wisconsin RFC will look to defend its Milwaukee Cup title for the second-straight year. The Badgers opened their spring with a win over Midwestern rival Iowa State before dropping a pair to the Chicago Lions and Milwaukee RFC. Of particular interest to the cardinal and white will be the crew hailing from UW-Stevens Point, a squad hungering for vengeance after the Badgers knocked them off in the regional Elite Eight last October.
“It was a very physical, hard-fought game,” Meyer said of the Badgers’ quarterfinal victory. “The last act of the game was getting a turnover, making a fast break and us scoring to win the game at the final whistle. It was amazing.”
“[The rivalry] is pretty nasty,” UW-Madison flyhalf Adam Kuen added. “I think it probably meant more that we beat them than beating another team, just because the rivalry has been going on, I mean, since I’ve been playing.”
With rivalries burgeoning and hungry newcomers hankering to leave an impression, this year’s Milwaukee Cup promises a Saturday of intense competition.