‘It’s in my blood’: how rugby managed to unite America’s elite

When Wales play South Africa at RFK Stadium in Washington on Saturday, a few well-known faces could be in the crowd

When Candace Gingrich met Bill Clinton in 1996, half-brother Newt was two years into a political war with the White House. At a fundraising event, the president worked his way down a line of guests. When he got to the young Human Rights Campaign staffer with the Republican House Speaker for a relative, he got a welcome surprise.

Im sure people ask you lots of things about politics and whatnot, Gingrich remembers saying. But I want to ask you about playing rugby.

Famously or infamously, depending on your view of a notoriously violent sport, Clinton played rugby union at Oxford.

He got this sort of faraway look in his eye, Gingrich says, and he started telling me this story about probably having a concussion but the coach saying, Youre the biggest guy out there, we need you. It was fun he got to step out of being the president for a minute and be a rugger again.

It is a big week for rugby in the US but the Guardian could not confirm if the presidential rugger will attend Wales v South Africa at RFK Stadium in Washington DC on Saturday, or the Collegiate Rugby Championship in Chester, Pennsylvania. A spokesman did not respond to a request for comment and nor did a representative of George W Bush, Clintons brother from another mother and fellow egg-chaser. Bushs reticence may or may not have been related to the notoriety of a Snopes-certified picture of a somewhat suspect tackle he made while playing for Yale.

History In Pictures (@HistoryInPics)

George W. Bush plays a little dirty rugby for Yale in 1966 pic.twitter.com/R1uPDXz4AB

February 5, 2014

But Gingrich, an activist, Friends guest star and long-time hooker for the Washington DC Furies, was happy to attempt to explain why footballs cousin has cast its counterintuitive appeal across the political divide.

You play rugby for yourself, obviously, because its an amazing game and it feels great and its just the best. But you also play for the other people on the field with you and that carries on off the field too.

Rugby is a fierce but fiercely social sport that can often help young people find their true selves. Gingrich has something in common with the USA forward and World Rugby Hall of Famer Phaidra Knight they came to terms with their sexuality in part through playing the game. Like many Americans, they discovered rugby in college. Now, on campuses across the US, Gingrich seeks out women who play and encourages them to distil the spirit of the game into campaigns for progressive causes. Few need much prompting to do so.

Among fans, tales of well-known people who found the game on campus and now prefer it to football are rife. Some rugby lovers, avid for the sport to rise and compete with the NFL, go so far as to claim the existence of a rugby illuminati, holding the levers of power. Put luridly, that might be a secret society of influential men and women who put tape on their ears, thud into each other with unpadded glee and drink unusual concoctions from boots. Put less luridly, more famous Americans than you think have played and loved the game.

There are politicians and celebrities and there are captains of culture, business and industry. In Hollywood, wrestler turned action hero Dwayne The Rock Johnson played rugby in New Zealand and has said it was the toughest sport he ever took part in. Russell Crowe loves rugby so much he owns a professional team, the South Sydney Rabbitohs, although that unlike all other cases mentioned here is 13-man rugby league, a different proposition altogether.

In Washington, among Democrats, Pennsylvania rising star Conor Lamb played at Penn while Connecticut senator Chris Murphy was on the team at Williams College, in Massachusetts. Among Republicans, West Virginia representative Alex X Mooney chairs the Congressional Rugby Caucus no kidding while the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, Charles and David, played at MIT. Rumours, as yet unsubstantiated, link them to philanthropic support of the American game today.

Barack Obama wasnt a rugger and it appears Donald Trump never played either. But Chris Liddell, Trumps deputy chief of staff, certainly did. In the words of his alma mater in Auckland, New Zealand, Mount Albert Grammar School: In 1975 he was vice-captain and best player in the 1st XV rugby team.

The champion Penn State womens rugby team pose with Donald Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House November 17, 2017. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Among independents, the Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban stands out as a vocal champion of rugby, its values and its more exuberant traditions.

I love the sport, the billionaire Shark Tank star, Trump-baiter and hard-charging back row forward said in a phone call that woke the Guardian up halfway through a bus ride to Washington to interview three-star general, former national security adviser and rugby lover HR McMaster. I have lifelong friends in my team-mates.

I played after college for the Pittsburgh Harlequins, the Dallas Harlequins and then the Dallas Reds, I played old boys up until I got my hips replaced a few years back. Its in my blood. I actually played one half after I got my first hip replacement and it was nerve-racking, kinda, so I gave it up there. I was worried my hip would pop out.

Cuban would have attended the CRC sevens on Saturday, he said, had TV duties not intruded. Had he been at the Talen Energy Stadium, perhaps to give a pep talk to the Indiana team to which he donates, he might have advised the collegiate players to follow his example.

The Indiana University rugby team in 1979, Mark Cuban third from left on the front row. Photograph: provided by Mark Cuban

Rugby taught me not to take myself too seriously, said the businessman who volunteered to be Hillary Clintons running mate and has flirted with a run for the White House himself. It taught me that you can beat the hell out of each other and then drink together afterwards, it taught me that a good rugby song and a party makes you lifelong friends no matter what. It taught me the value of fitness. Theres so many things.

The beauty of rugby is that its so irreverent that you learn not to take anyone else too seriously too. You learn to accept other people for who they are. We had doctors, lawyers, day labourers, jobless, homeless guys even, you know? There was always someone who slept on someone elses couch. Theyre still my best friends to this day. We all get together every couple of years.

At one such get-together at a bar on Massachusetts Avenue, politicos and non-politicos happily talked scrums, lineouts, rucks and rolling mauls. Mike Enright, chief of staff to Martin OMalley when he was governor of Maryland, later confirmed that the 2016 Democratic presidential hopeful is a convert, following rugby through his sons adventures in the growing high-school game.

Paul Sheehy bought the Guardian a beer. He is a successful car dealer who is now a joint-backer of DCMLR, a team that aims to join the new pro competition, Major League Rugby, by 2020 at the latest. He also played for the USA at the 1991 World Cup in England, coaches high school champions Gonzaga College and is as passionate about the game as can be.

Edward Kennedy, far left of back row, in the Harvard rugby team in 1955. Photograph: JFK Library

Back in the 1980s, when he was on his way up in Washington and the world, he applied for a job with Ted Kennedy. The last lion of the greatest political dynasty was a rugby star for Harvard in the 50s. He still took an active interest.

Chris Doherty interviewed me for my job with the senator, Sheehy said, as Doherty, then a Kennedy aide and now a business bigshot, happily nodded along. It took place at touch rugby practice on the mall by the Lincoln Memorial.

We talked briefly about the job and then he said, Lets see how you play! He hired me when he saw I was a decent player. I found my resum in a puddle of mud.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2018/jun/01/famous-american-rugby-players-wales-v-south-africa

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