Scrum of the Earth

It was a tired and hoarse group of fellows that boarded an early evening Southwest Airlines flight from San Francisco to Phoenix a few Sundays back.

And a happy group, to boot--even though one of the men had lost a couple of airline tickets earlier during an ecstatic celebration, adding another $200 to the airfare back home to Tempe.

But the trip to San Francisco's historic Polo Fields was more than worth a few extra bucks for members of the Tempe Old Devils rugby team.

The Old Devils had just swept two games in a national playoff tournament that was the equivalent of the Sweet 16 in college basketball. Now, they're on the road to the final four.

The 60-member squad will pack bags and travel to Chicago's Winnemac Stadium to play for the 1996 Men's Division II National Rugby Championship on May 25 and 26.

"If we are in synch--with this group--then we will win the championship," says Old Devils coach William "Salty" Thompson.

The Old Devils will play the Burlington (Vermont) Rugby Football Club in the first round. If they defeat Burlington, the Old Devils will meet the winner of the Snake River (Idaho) Rugby Football Club and Utah Internationals match-up in a championship game.

The Old Devils are made up of mostly ex-Arizona State University rugby club members and players who moved to Phoenix from overseas, where rugby has a huge following. Ranging in age from 16 to 40, the men practice several times a week at Tempe's Estrada Park and compete in the rigorous Southern California Rugby League.

The Old Devils cruised to an 11-1 record in their first year of competition in Southern California's Division II. The team advanced to the national quarterfinals in San Francisco, easily defeating Severn River 68-8 to reach the regional final.

The regional championship, where the Devils faced previously unbeaten Jacksonville, Florida, was a nail-biter that went down to the last minute. The Old Devils broke open the game in the last 30 seconds when six-foot-two, 215-pound Rick Shaw scored a try (the equivalent of a touchdown in football) to give the Old Devils a 19-14 victory.

Rugby, a precursor to American football, attracts a diverse lot of athletes. Many of them say they enjoy the game more than football because of the nonstop action, physical demands and mental alertness required to excel at the sport.

And one other thing: Everyone gets a chance to be a star.
"All 15 players during a game are likely to touch the ball and have a chance to score," says Tim Ronan, an Old Devils starter and coach of the ASU rugby club. Rugby is not a varsity sport at ASU, although more colleges across the nation are adding it to the varsity program.

Some of the social customs that go with rugby might seem odd to followers of major American sports. At the top of the list: The home team must provide food and drinks to the opponent.

Of course, beer is also an important element of the game. The Old Devils, whose colors are black and tan, are sponsored by Guinness, the giant Irish beer company, which purchased the team's jerseys.

Given the fast pace of the game--which can create a general feeling that a riot is about to break out at any second--a few brews are almost obligatory to soothe wounds.

But members of the Old Devils insist that theirs is not a team of drunken heathens.

"This is a ruffians' game played by gentlemen," says Ronan.
The Old Devils will be anything but gentle when they take the field May 25 against Burlington. Every player knows this is a rare chance to win a national title. Next year, the Old Devils will move up to Division I, a level of the Southern California league where the competition will be much more accomplished.

"If we don't win it this year, we are not going to get a shot at it for a long time," says Thompson.