Taking a run at rugby

By Dave Wagner

Dan Dannar didn’t grow up playing rugby, but the sport has grown on him.
Now he’s hoping the often rough-and-tumble game of European origin will become a popular pastime at Cannon Air Force Base.
After three years of combining forces with players from Eastern New Mexico University, Cannon formed its own team last fall. Getting it to fit with other requirements at the base has been challenging.
“We started out with about 25 guys,” said Dannar, who is the team’s player/coach, “but through work and other commitments, it’s dwindled down to about 12.”
That’s not so bad in the spring, when the team plays what’s called a “seven-season,” meaning seven players to a side.
The object of rugby is similar to football as teams try to advance the ball down field while avoiding being tackled and can score by crossing the goal line, called a try, and kicking the ball through a goal.
The field for rugby is similar to a soccer field — 100 meters long and 25 or 30 meters wide, Dannar said. The 15-man game has 40-minute halves, while the 7-on-7 version has 15-minute halves.
“Seven-man is all technique and endurance,” Dannar said. “In a seven-man game you run about five to eight meters, where in a regular game you have more people to cover up mistakes.”
Dannar, a 29-year-old staff sergeant from Grand Junction, Colo., is the most experienced player on the team, having played for about five years while stationed in England. He first played the sport while stationed in Turkey.
“One of the guys was a really small guy, and he made me a bet that I wouldn’t last one game,” Dannar said. “I went out and got addicted to it, and I’ve been playing it ever since.
“Rugby’s as tough as you make it. A lot of people compare it to American football, but the rules are closer to basketball or soccer.”
Most of the team members have little or no previous rugby experience.
“I watched it on TV a few times,” said Senior Airman Adrian Sevilla, 22, who is from Riverside, Calif. “I started playing about three years ago when we were with Eastern.
“I thought it would be fun. In high school I played a lot of football and was on team sports. When I got here I decided to give (rugby) a shot, and fell in love with it.”
With little padding, the sport might appear rough to the average spectator. But Sevilla said the American version of the game is generally tamer than its European counterpart.
“(Europeans) seem to grow up with a rugby ball in their hand,” he said. “But I think we’re making a lot of progress here.”
The Cannon squad, which plays mainly against college club teams and men’s open squads, will travel to a tournament this weekend in Midland, Texas. The team practices twice a week.
But because of work commitments at Cannon, players sometimes have trouble making practice. Tuesday’s workout drew only about a half-dozen participants.
Staff Sgt. Dennis Johnson, the oldest player on the team at 32, is out until the fall after having reconstructive ankle surgery.
“I’ve never played a sport like this,” he said. “I’ve played other sports like soccer, and some football. But when I came out for the first (rugby) practice I thought, ‘Wow, this is cool. I can hit people full speed with no pads.’
“As soon as the fall season begins, I’ll be playing again.”
Johnson, who admits to carrying something over 200 pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame, plays in what is known as “the pack,” similar to linemen in football. “I’m not good enough to be out on the wings,” he said.
“I like playing in the pack. It’s a lot of fun, especially when they do the scrums.”
A scrum is a battle for the ball at the line of scrimmage.
The team has played club squads from schools such as Texas Tech, Angelo State and New Mexico State. Dannar said he hopes to play ENMU when both sides get their numbers up.