Rugby knows no bounds, bridges cultural gaps

The Vassar rugby team has a tradition that since the 90s has instilled campus-wide jealousy and team-wide pride. Rugby is an international game, born in England but popular in South Africa, Fiji, Australia, Barbados, and dozens of other geographically disparate places. This allows us to jettison ourselves over the United States’ border and spend spring break in any number of foreign places, justified through our athletic connection. We flounder and ogle like any other group of American tourists, but we’re also lent a measure of legitimacy, a shared language between a group of us and a group of locals.

This spring break we went to Budapest, Hungary, and yes, it was awesome. The tour was organized under the direction of senior Sophia Rutkin, who had spent her junior fall semester there, forging “deep ties” to the city and its people. Rugby is only fledgling there, generated from the city’s expat community. We played the aptly named Budapest Exiles, about half of whom were Hungarians and the other half the team’s namesake.

In the tour’s main contest, the Vassar women’s team came out victorious. The men’s team experienced a dissimilar fate, losing by 12 points. Victory’s pride and losing’s shame aside, Vassar rugby established another connection abroad, adding to our increasingly comprehensive list: recent years’ tours include Trinidad and Tobago, Spain, Barbados, Ireland and England. This indeed happened, and is indeed a cool and longstanding tradition for a Vassar group, but why does this matter? How are these excursions justified?

It begins with the understanding that sports are more than just games. As seen during the World Cup, sports take on intense geopolitical significance. During the Superbowl, we see football as the true center of American capitalism. Each sport has its own political story, its own cultural significance, and rugby is no exception.

It’s a game unlike any other, a unique combination of strategy, violence, specialization, and collectivity. It’s remarkable that most people seeing a game for the first time will remark “it’s like there aren’t any rules!” That observation is representative of another uniqueness of the game: it’s a practice of order among perceived chaos. We know what the rules are, but we don’t see the need to fashion a game that appears highly ordered and aesthetically pleasing. Why decrease entropy when we don’t need to? To the critics, a resoundingly pertinent and misattributed quote on the game tells you, “The women and men who play on that rugby field are more alive than too many of us will ever be. The foolish emptiness we think we perceive in their existence is only our own.”

When an American university rugby team plays a club team in another country, a lot happens. Both sets of players know that what I said in the previous two paragraphs is true; it is the subtext of our interactions, of our contests and our post-game socials. It is in these moments where rugby’s profound meaningfulness transcends difference.

So in Budapest, some beautiful things happened. We lived among the tourist world of Budapest’s sights, restaurants, bars, and clubs, and we certainly didn’t shy away from that part of the city. But where typical tourism tends to separate, to accentuate difference and create in this case a further gap between America and Central Europe, our tour did something else. We saw, in the words of Vassar rugby senior Sophia Rutkin, how “cultural bridges can be built and strengthened through common interest.”

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