Chapter XII: Rugby

Historically, one William Webb Ellis, a soccer playing Englishman, is credited with inventing the game of rugby when, frustrated by the exclusive use of the feet and in defiance of the rules, he simply picked up the ball and ran with it to the goal line. This was in 1823. The new tactic (even though against the rules) caught the fancy of the athletes at Rugby School, who quickly developed a running attack that has been the hallmark of the sport ever since. The rules for rugby, as we know them, were standardized in 1871, a period during which the great prestige schools of the United States, such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton, adopted rugby as a favorite college sport.

With one lapse of time, rugby-USA-has been around for over one hundred years. The fantastic upward surge which it is undergoing today followed a drought of approximately forty years, from the early 1920’s to around 1964, when a revival of the game took place. The popularity of the sport before the early 1920’s is attested by the fact that the United States took the gold medals in the 1920 and 1921 Olympics, after which rugby for some reason was struck from the list of Olympic events.

Unfortunately for the purpose of this history, few Americans have ever seen rugby played. To the casual observer it may seem to be a chaotic form of mayhem disguised as a sport. Actually, if he watches a rugby match carefully, he will soon observe that the seeming chaos conceals finesse and strategy that belong specifically to the game. American style football players who have also competed in rugby have learned to respect a fast-moving sport played by rugged performers without the helmets, face masks and shoulder pads they are accustomed to see on the American football players.

But what quite generally is not known is that rugby is as much a social event as an athletic contest. Rugby matches conclude traditionally with a party provided by the host club. Winning is as important in rugby as in other contact sports, but with the ruggers a loss is not such a calamity as to preclude a post-game party with refreshments. In fact, the rules of good sportsmanship, according to rugby traditions, demand the post-game activities in which the bumps and bruises and hard checks are accepted in the spirit of good fellowship. For them the sometimes rough and tumble style of play falls under the heading of good clean fun. In the “party,” opponents of a strenuous afternoon congratulate one another for a good game over a glass-or two or three-of beer (the American substitute for English ale) and look forward to the time when they can meet again.

Thomas Haigh, an instructor in the St. John’s department of mathematics, founded the St. John’s Rugby Club in the spring of 1968. A former St. John’s Prep School student, he learned the game while an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. During the month of March of his first year as instructor at SJU, he spent a week or so indoors in the gymnasium introducing a group of some twenty college students to the basics the game, after which he arranged rugby matches with the University of Minnesota and the Carleton College clubs.

The rugby beginners of St. John’s lost both matches by scores of 10-0 and 9-6 respectively, but Coach Haigh was satisfied with the results, especially since the number of applicants for positions on the team doubled after the first game. Rugby was popular from the beginning! Since that time rugby has become St. John’s largest club sport that is, a game not included in the regular program of St. John’s varsity and intramural sports, but is independently organized and financed by the club members. Though in recent years the University has provided some limited financial assistance to the club, the bulk of the expenses for uniforms, dues, food, gas, lodging, and post-game activities has been met by the members themselves.

Haigh returned to the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1968 to complete his doctoral studies in mathematics, but he left behind a group of rugby enthusiasts who took over where their coach had left off-Marty Fenlon, Bruce Bromander, John McCambridge, Mike Drapcho, Rick Moore, Steve Merz, and others. In 1969 the St. John’s Rugby Club joined the Minnesota Union, and in 1970 associated itself with the Midwest Rugby Union (based in Chicago). In 1971 the club was granted full membership. It was a prestigious group that in 1971 numbered thirty teams and seven associate memberships. Heretofore totally independent financially, the St. John’s club now appealed to the Athletic Allocations Board (the AAB) for assistance, and through George Durenberger was granted the sum of $200 for new uniforms and new rugby balls. Under the urging of club president Mike Drapcho, they then scheduled games with the University of Wisconsin and the two St. Louis teams in the Missouri Union.

First the St. John’s ruggers defeated Tom Haigh’s Wisconsin team 9-5, then the following weekend defeated the St. Louis Rebels 3-0 and the St. Louis Bombers 14-3. Plenty of eyebrows were raised! The victories rendered the Jays eligible for the Mid-America Cup Tournament that was to be held this year in Milwaukee. It was the objective they were hoping for-the opportunity to spread their fame beyond the confines of Minnesota by defeating the top rugby teams in the Midwest.

The success of the brash young ruggers was phenomenal, despite a first-game defeat by the Chicago Lions, the 1970 Mid-America Cup champion and also the favorite for the 1971 meet. The defeat automatically dropped St. John’s into the consolation round for the remainder of the meet. But the Jays were equal to the occasion. They first defeated Kent State 16-0, then the Amoco Club of Chicago 25-0. The final game was against the University of Minnesota Club that only a week earlier had defeated them easily. The St. John’s club met the University head on, however, and won the match and the consolation championship by a score of 18-8.

Marty Fenlon, perhaps the most articulate promoter of rugby in his time, proudly wrote the Record report on the victory: “There were two trophies presented after the finals of the Mid-America. One went to St. John’s, along with the admiration and compliments of everyone at the tournament. The other went to the University of Wisconsin, and their captain is our own Tom Haigh” (Record, May 7, 1971). The 1971 victory was not the last of the St. John’s Club achievements. They again won third place in the Mid-America Cup Tournament in 1972 and continued to take on all the prestigious clubs they could contact and play within the limits of their budget.

Members of the 1972 Rugby Club were Mike Bonacci, Larry Herrig, Peter Harriman, Patrick Hogan, Jeff “Boscoe” Meyer, Mark Caven, Dave Van Landschoot, Dick Howard, Michael “Montana” Stergios, Ferdinand Colon, Andrew Picla, Gregory Wells, and their great star Tom Miller.

The 1972 fall season ruggers had a very mediocre record to show for their efforts, due principally to the small turn-out of contestants for the team, as periodically happened when John Gagliardi’s football players, who also formed the major part of the spring teams, were unavailable for rugby in the fall. The experience gained, however, along with the arrival of key veterans, spelled good things for the spring team of 1973. The Johnnies left the field victorious in all but two of their eight matches-both losses being sustained at the Mid-America Cup Tournament held in Chicago. Highlight of the season was the defeat of the University of Minnesota, the Big Ten rugby champions, by a score of 21-4.

Results of the year are the following: wins-Carleton 8-4, North-. field 8-0, Minneapolis Rugby Club 18-0; at the Mid-America Cup: Lincoln Park 8-6 and the University of Minnesota 21-4. Losses: both sustained in the Mid-America tournament, were to the University of Chicago 12-16, and Northern Illinois 3-18.

Members of the 1973 squad: Michael Bonacci, James Berg, Cark Caven, Marty Cella, Eric Dierkhising, Gary Eustice, James Fahrenkrug, Michael Fitzgerald, Peter Harriman, Joseph Hays, Richard Howard, Colin Mackenzie, Steve Merz (captain), Steve Pollock, William Schmeling, Thomas Sloan, David Van Landschoot, Michael “Montana” Stergios, Thomas Weber, Gregory Wells.

The 1974 spring season sparkled with enthusiasm and confidence. Many new players had been initiated in the fall and, combined with the tried veterans, they comprised the largest squad up to that time, almost fifty ruggers. From this season on, the club was able to field two and even three teams (called sides), the A group calling themselves the Rats, and the B team the Mice, the C team, the Lemmings. One of the reasons for the exuberance of the team was the bailing out of the club by the administration in a difficult financial situation, and the acquisition of a full set of new team uniforms, the support of the athletic department, and the possibility of securing the good will of the Athletic Allocations Board (Record, April 15, 1974). A printed program of the games had also been composed by John Forsythe and Jim Berg, with the art design by Daniel Keiser.

The 1974 spring highlights were a four-game Easter-break trip through Iowa, and the Mid-America Cup tournament, held in Green Bay. The St. John’s ruggers fared well on both trips, especially at the Mid-America Cup. Beating Notre Dame 4-3 and Lincoln Park 20-4, the Johnnies were edged out in the semi-finals by the Big Ten champions, the University of Wisconsin, 13-10. St. John’s again took third place against the Midwest’s finest opposition. The Notre Dame match was reported as the most colorful, though not the best game of the tournament. Mike Black, one of the leaders of the team, writes: “The Notre Dame-SJU game was the talk of the tournament, with everyone wondering whom the Pope would root for. The answer was obvious, as a pre-game prayer by the Irish was cancelled out by expletives uttered by Notre Dame during the match” (Record, May 10, 1974).

Squad members were James Anderson, James Berg, Michael Black, Mark Caven, Mike Bonacci, Marty and Jack Cella, Tom Doran, Michael Dory, Brad Eustice, Fuzzy Fashant, James FergIe, John Forsythe, Gerard Fredella, Peter Hill, Daniel Keiser, Mike Kelly, Greg Lee, Steve Merz, Larry Osterhaus, Edward Poniewaz, Scott Sahli, Bill Schmeling, John Scherer, Tom Sloan, Michael Stergios, Seni Tufele, Barry Vinyard, Tom Weber, and Daniel Whalen.

1975 was not one of the best years of the St. John’s Rugby Club. The hard luck had started already in the 1974 fall season in which the Johnnies won five matches and lost six. Team philosopher Mike Black settled the problem, however. “The success of any season is not judged so much by the team’s accomplishments as by the satisfaction they enjoyed. So even with a record of 5-6, the entire club will acknowledge that they had a successful season-and a good time” (Record, November 18, 1974).

The highest achievement of the spring season was the decision to establish an annual St. John’s Rugby Invitational in which the Johnnies hoped to win first place and a trophy. But things did not work out as well as they anticipated because of the pesky Minneapolis Rugby Club which, though defeated 6-4 by St. John’s in the first match of the year, in the tournament fought savagely and defeated the Johnnies in a 4-3 thriller. The parties for the two-day tournament were held at five o’clock on the Watab picnic grounds with an astoundingly successful finishing party.

Perhaps the highlight of the traveling season was the February trip to Louisiana for the Mardi Gras Rugby Tournament. Out of practice (and shape) after a long trip by car, the Johnnies did not do as well as they expected, though they managed to win three of their five games.

In the Mid-America Cup Tournament St. John’s failed to do as well as usual. The team moved into the semi-finals to find themselves facing St. Olaf. Having played one more game than the Oles, and running out of players because of injuries, the Johnnies were defeated by St. Olaf by a score of 12-7.

Team members mentioned in the game reports for 1975 were Mike Stergios, David Trnka, Michael Dory, Mike Kelly, Edward Miller, Tim Nolan, Scott Sahli, Kenneth Worm, Michael Black, John Forsy the 1975 marks the final year of Mike Black at the head of St. John’s Rugby Club. He was a one-man dynamo in terms of organization, promotion, enthusiasm and knowledge of rugby. While not a super-star on the field, he did more for the game than any other individual connected with the sport.

-1976-77 –

The 1976 rugby season found the Johnnies logging an impressive, undefeated season of thirteen victories and no losses. It was the best record in the eight-year career of rugby at St. John’s. Under the leadership of co-captains John Forsythe and Scott Sahli, the St. John’s ruggers melded into a cohesive unit that did not permit an opponent to score until the ninth game. Highlight of the season was a hard fought battle with the team’s arch-rival, the Minneapolis Rugby Club, in which the Johnnies regained the championship they had lost in 1975. St. John’s followed up the championship game with a close victory over the powerful Tommies by a score of 10-9(Record, May 14, 1976, p. 13). Since the St. John’s mediocre record of 1975 had rendered the team ineligible for the 1976 Mid-America Tournament, it was a tremendous uplift to the squad to have paved the way for participation in the 1977 tournament.

The starting team for 1976 and the positions played by the Johnnies were as follows: hooker: Scott Sahli; props: Mike Dory and Dave Trnka; 2nd row: James Zrust and Greg Lee; eighth man: Ken Worm; wing forwards: Thomas Sinner and Greg Palen; serum half: Timothy Nolan; fly half: Bill Schmeling; inside center: John Scherer; outside center: Mike Scully; wings: Jamie Anderson and Peter Hill; fullback: John Forsythe.

Over the nine years of its existence the St. John’s Rugby Club had been gradually improving until in 1976 it had become the top college organization in the state. The fall version of the 1976-77 team was an immediate success. During the summer it had engaged in a tournament at Faribault in which it had emerged in fourth place-a warning that was observed in the opening of the fall season by first beating St. Cloud State 44-4, St. Paul Pigs 9-3, Carleton 14-0, North Dakota State 11-0, the University of Minnesota 8-0 and Duluth (UMD) 18-0. At this point the Johnnies fell victim to the Minneapolis Club by a score of 3-24.

The defeat by the Minneapolis Club had not been unexpected. A fierce rivalry had sprung up between the two teams, and the Minneapolis Club had trained hard and seriously, fully determined to hold their own against the madcap collegians.

Despite the loss, the St. John’s Club was again invited to compete in the Mid-America Cup Tournament to be held in Indianapolis in May 1977.

The Jays emerged from the tournament with a record of two wins and two losses. The powerful Ohio State entry easily defeated the Johnnies 21-11, and in the semi-finals the Minneapolis club, also invited, eked out a 10-9 victory over the Johnnies. St. John’s defeated the West Side Harlicians 22-4 and Louisville 18-9. The 1977 Sagatagan reporter rejoiced that although the Johnnies had lost the rugby meet “they came away with the most important victory. They won the party” (Sagatagan, 1977, pp. 152-153).

The squad is pictured in the Sag as follows: Michael Zahler, James Zrust, Brad Eustice, John Scherer, Thomas Sinner, Gregory Palen, Ken Worm, Kevin Daly, Michael Scully, Christopher Boyd, Matthew Martin, Timothy Nolan, Richard Battiola, Francis Fitzgerald, David Trnka, Jeff Feldmeier, Scott Sahli, Thomas Wicks, Arthur Thelemann (Sagatagan, 1977, pp. 152-53).

– 1977-78-

Under the leadership of co-captains Rick Battiola and Valentine “Beano” Kraljic, the fall and spring seasons of 1977 and 1978 were distinct successes, reminiscent of the great rugby team of 1976. In the fall season the team went through a series of eight games without defeat, five of the victories being shut-outs: the University of Minnesota 18-3, St. Thomas 8-0, St. Olaf 1-0, the Banshees 11-0, Duluth 8-0, St. Cloud State 12-6, St. Paul 4-3, and Gary Owen 13-0.

In the spring season the triumphant Johnnies continued their victorious ways by winning eight games of a twelve-game schedule and again taking first place in the St. John’s Invitational. The only loss to a college team was to St. Thomas, 4-6, on one of the St. John’s “bad days.” In the Mid-America Cup Tournament, however, the youthful Johnnies were pitted against the older veteran clubs of Akron, Ohio, and Cleveland, to whom St. John’s lost by scores of 6-21 and 6-18 respectively. The Johnnies defeated Illinois State 9-7 and St. cloud State 9-3, again demonstrating that when pitted against college teams the Jays were among the top college teams in the entire Midwest. Other Scores are the following: University of Minnesota 12-0, St. Paul Club 12-6, Carleton 12-9, Waconia 21-6, Le Sueur 16-7, Waconia 10-0, Minneapolis Club 0-12, a loss.

The A squad of the 1978 rugby team was made up of Daniel Roth Glen Steinhoff, Beano Kraljic, Martin Case, John Bodick, Timoth; Miller, Joseph Sullivan, Richard Murphy, Gregory Feldmeier, Richard Battiola, Richard Robel, Mike Scully, Timothy Travis, Mike Madden Thomas Klint, Harpo St. Clair, David Rothbauer, Steven Pfefferle: James Meyer and Daniel Murphy.


Thus is concluded this short history of rugby on the St. John’s campus. Opinions had been expressed that it is a brutal game. Actually, the ruggers themselves in their many articles in the Record and Sagatagan aimed to convey the impression of supermen engaged in an exhilarating physical sport, followed by a rousing good party. Timothy Nolan, one of the Rugby Club presidents, wrote: “To some naive bystanders it’s a form of masochism. Most will agree, though, that it is a unique social phenomenon. Where else can one observe an athletic activity, governed by strict rules and strategy, that exhibits competitive physical violence between two opposing forces and ends with a cheer for all participants! This is all part of the rugby spirit, the social brotherhood where all participants are pretty much accepted for what they are and what they have to contribute to the group” (Record, April 29, 1977, p. 8).

John Forsythe, in a brief summary of the first eight years of St. John’s rugby, makes the point that rugby is a game played for the sheer fun of good sportsmanship. “I hesitate to single out individual players. The spirit of rugby as I know it does not promote individual recognition of a ‘public nature.’ A warm handshake, a hearty slap on the back, or a ‘Hey, you played a hell of a game today’ are lauds enough. It will be a sad day indeed when we have a leading scorer and a most valuable player.”

Possibly lured by wild tales of the St. John’s ruggers, Don Riley of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported a match between the Johnnies and the St. Paul Banshees that ended 11-0 in favor of St. John’s: “As unruly as a thornbush. As disciplined as a riot. . . . Delightful as a fresh breeze over a garbage pit. Yah, baby, I love the Rugby men.” (The “garbage pit” was probably a reference to over thirty human bodies reeking of sweat after eighty minutes of controlled violence-a phrase dear to the ruggers.

Riley ended his impressionistic appraisal of the Johnnies in an exchange with another appreciative onlooker: “As a delightful St. Benedict coed cooed to me Sunday, ‘Aren’t they the greatest? All covered with mud and so virile. They make the soccer and baseball players look like little boys.’ “And Riley, his mind filled with images of bodies strewn over the field and his ears deafened by the shrieks of two ambulances, gently conceded the point. “That they do, honey. That they do” (St. Paul Pioneer Press, Wednesday, April 26, 1978: “The Eye Opener”).