By Meg Schmitt
“Violent elegance” is an oddly striking description of the game of rugby, offered by veteran player and Grinnell citizen Erik Hartz, hinting at the underlying strategy in the sport. “Technique is way more important than force.”
It’s technique that is used by teammates of all shapes and sizes in the rough-and-tumble matches of fifteen-a-side rugby played by the local Grinnell Griffins Rugby Club against the other men’s teams in the Iowa Division III league of the Midwest Rugby Union.
The Griffins are made up of a group of local men spanning all walks of life and all ages—from kids just out of high school to some fathers with grown children of their own. Hartz has been with the Griffins for 19 years and traces the team’s collaborative nature back to their founding.
“In 1974, Robert Ovel (known as Bobby O on the team) just started recruiting guys, and… it [turned into] a conglomeration of all sorts,” Hartz said.
Ovel was a prominent feature of the club and a well-known face around town before that. The club honors his memory with a semi-annual Bobby O tournament.
The Griffins maintain both a fall and spring playing season, each lasting anywhere from six to nine weeks. During season, they practice twice a week at Ahrens Park just a few blocks from campus and offer open practices to any and all interested sportsmen.
The team this year already has some action under its belt, having just returned from an exciting tournament in St. Louis, Ruggerfest, where the team won one game and lost two.
In its 39-year legacy, the team has certainly encountered some ups and downs, but with surprises along the way.
“Grinnell Rugby went years without a full team [then five years ago] in one season we go 14 wins to 1 loss… and we go on to win our division that year!” Hartz said.
A significant element of the experience is actually what occurs after the last whistle has blown, as the teams get the chance to celebrate their victory or mourn their loss at a post-game social.
“A big part in rugby is that the home team always sponsors a social [after the game],” Hartz said. “There’s this social atmosphere where both teams come together and they’re licking their wounds over some beer and food.”
To club secretary Drew Sherman, a local Grinnellian and Griffin of only a few years, it’s a matter of pride for the hometown to make their best effort not only as opponents on the field, but as hosts off of it.
“If we don’t win the match, we want to ‘win’ that social. We want [the other team] to remember they had a great time in Grinnell,” Sherman said.
The Griffins have always been well supported in town, particularly by their favorite social location, Lonnski’s Pub & Deli. Their other main sponsors, Pella Motors, Brownells and Grinnell State Bank, help the team cover small costs of tournaments and transportation.
Since the team’s founding, the Griffins have enjoyed a continued relationship with the College—be it in the form of match space on MacEachron Field or student recruits to the squad.
“We’ve always played [home matches] right at the College,” Hartz said. “Whenever we decide which direction we’re kicking off, we say ‘Are you going to defend the [Gates] Tower, or kick it to the Tower?’”
Student interest in rugby is nothing new—Grinnell students have historically been involved with the Griffins and the College maintained a women’s team for some time in the 1990s. The team’s crest, a bold white griffin on a backdrop of green and black, even features the College’s laurel leaves and the North Campus skyline. College participation has dwindled in recent years, however, to the point where no College students are playing for the Griffins this spring season, something Sherman hopes will change in the coming years.
“[The Griffins] used to be half and half, college kids and locals. We’d like to get a more [sustained] presence going on with the College,” Sherman said.
Although the College maintains a limited relationship with the team, Sherman would like to see that link grow to a full recognition of the team.
“We would like to be associated with the College–even if it takes time. … I would like their help in bringing the team… closer to becoming a part of the College,” he said.
Sherman is a firm believer in the ageless and indiscriminate appeal of rugby. He says all are welcome and suggests many might be surprised how easily they take to the rough sport.
“We’re looking for anyone that wants to come out,” Sherman said. “[You] don’t even have to be an athlete, you can just come out and check it out at practice. Sometimes people don’t even realize what they’re capable of!”
Anyone interested in seeing the Griffins in action will have the opportunity to watch them host the Iowa Falls team in their upcoming home match on April 27 right on Mac Field at 1 p.m. If you’re curious to learn more about the team, email firstname.lastname@example.org with any and all questions regarding scheduling and getting involved with the team.