Rugby at West Point

An Article from the Irish Times – Saturday Dec 2008

BAND OF BROTHERS: DESPITE BEING the ancestor of American Football, rugby is a relatively minor amateur sport in the United States. But at the elite military academy of West Point, New York, the game is flourishing for a simple reason: with its demanding technique, the need for rapid individual decision making and – above all – its warrior culture, rugby is considered the best possible sporting preparation for the controlled chaos of the battlefield.

Five minutes before kick-off, and coach “Rich Pohlidal” wants his men to know that the demands of daily life at West Point should give them an edge. “Look these guys in the eye and ask them where they live – what can they do to us? Hardship is good, suffering is good – you know it makes us stronger!”

A few seconds later, all 60 players on the rugby programme gather in the centre of the lockerroom and kneel for the prayer, followed by a poem written specially for the occasion – the sentiments are a little less Christian. Finally, the group huddles even closer, throwing their hands into the middle: “One, two, three, BROTHERS!” They file out, steel cleats clicking on the floor, to meet today’s opponents – Boston College – in a game they hope will prepare them for the much harder challenges of tomorrow.

Outside, heavy rain is lashing down diagonally across Warrior Field, driven by gusts of up to 60mph. Rugby is a winter sport, but even professionals find it hard to cope when the elements are at their worst. Most of the team are new to rugby, having discovered it at the academy – in these conditions, their lack of experience could easily lead to handling errors and poor tactical choices. But they display some exceptional individual skills and play intelligently, occupying territory with tactical kicks when the wind is at their backs before punching holes in the defence close to the goal line. At half-time the score is 19-0 to West Point. When they turn into the wind they keep the ball tight in among the forward pack, and start to grind down their opponents. Even if their discipline, fitness and all-round focus is no surprise, it is still a remarkable performance. Final score: 43-3 to the cadets. “If there was a team that was going to come out on top in that kind of weather, it had to be the army,” grins Coach Pohlidal.

At West Point, every cadet is an athlete: there are physical tests to pass as well as academic and military examinations. But the importance of sport runs deeper than simple physical testing – the spirit of competition is at the heart of a West Point education. Col “Greg Daniels” is Master of the Sword, director of physical education, at West Point. On his wall hangs a painting of General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander in the second World War and Superintendent of West Point from 1919-1922; along the bottom of the painting run MacArthur’s words: “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory.”

For Daniels, the game of rugby is quite simply the best sporting preparation for the rigours of war: “Rugby replicates, in a very elegant way, the potential situations of combat. It’s a slightly better way to do it than American Football – and I’m a big fan of American Football. While both sports are high impact and have a team working toward a common goal where you can’t rely on any one individual, only certain positions are truly exposed in American Football. In rugby, however, everyone is making tactical and technical decisions in real time, and there are fewer breaks in play so it’s physically very demanding.”

The culture that surrounds rugby is another point in its favour for the army. “These guys embrace adversity – difficult weather conditions, for example, are welcomed as a badge of honour – and they are imbued with the warrior ethos.”

Cadets have a host of branch options, with possibilities as diverse as finance, engineering or the infantry. Almost without exception, rugby players choose combat arms. Since 2006, West Point has instituted the Alexander Nininger Award (Medal of Honor recipient) “for Valour at Arms”. Two of the three recipients are former players, a remarkable statistic considering less than 20 players a year graduate in a class of over 900.

Courage in combat is not without its risks, and Coach Pohlidal has buried six former players, one of whom has his ashes scattered on Warrior Field.

Rugby came to West Point in 1961, when cadet John Taylor gathered together 40-odd classmates for the first team practice on an isolated, muddy field. To begin with he could count on their enthusiasm and little else: they had one rugby ball and a cadet who had played rugby for a few years at school in Chile as coach. They didn’t win a game in their first season, but progress was fast, and for some decades have been proud to describe themselves as “the winningest team at West Point”.

Although they are yet to win a national championship, West Point have qualified for the Sweet 16 every year since the collegiate championship play-off system was established in 1980. Until 2007, the Academy lacked a first-class facility, but the inauguration of the Anderson Rugby Complex in May last year has changed all that. Built at a total cost of over $8.35 million and boasting a state of the art all-weather practice pitch alongside the main field, which are both floodlit, on-site weights room and high-tech video gear for match analysis, the ARC is on a par with training complexes at professional clubs in Europe and the Southern Hemisphere.

Afternoons before training during the week, the lockerroom at the complex takes on the air of a fraternity: “The guys like to come down and hang out when they have some free time between classes and practise,” says Pohlidal. Life at West Point is demanding, to say the least: a typical day begins with breakfast formation at 6.30am and the first class starts at 7.30am, so any chance of downtime is welcome.

A television in the corner screens the weekend’s games from the European championship, and the smell of gear that should have been washed yesterday mingled with chatter and laughter is typical of lockerrooms anywhere. But there is something more as well – beneath the relaxed atmosphere is an undercurrent of tension, and it is hard to ignore the singular task for which these young men are ultimately preparing.

No matter how seriously they take their rugby, ultimately the game is only a stepping stone – soon, they will be leading men into battle, where the consequences of a bad decision or sloppy execution will be much greater than a lost match.

“Tommy Sandonato”, the hooker and team captain, has a ready smile and a pit bull jawline, typifying the West Point ruggers’ mix of easy good nature and mental toughness. In his last year at West Point, he already has one eye on the future. “I do think about combat. I’ve come to terms with it because, for a long time now I’ve wanted to be involved and the army offers me the most direct way to do good,” he says. Sandonato is confident that leadership and decision-making skills learned on the rugby field will feed through into his responsibilities as an officer.

“I think the most direct correlation will be in observing what the other guys are doing and reacting to that, looking for their weakness and exploiting it together as a unit. Other sports have that tactical aspect but only rugby has it on the fly – you have to adjust during phases, communicate solutions and anticipate the results. And you can’t just think ‘I’ve done the right thing’ and leave it there, you have to be responsible for the whole mission. If we beat Al Qaeda in Iraq but destroy the state, then that’s no good.”

Major “Mark DeRocchi”, a veteran of Iraq and now an officer representative with the club, sees the channelling of aggression and the emotional discipline required in rugby as another useful skill that translates to the battlefield. “Combat is very intense, but you have to be able to switch on and off as the situation requires, and that can change in the space of a minute. We were in a firefight, for example, chasing insurgents, and as we turned a corner we came across a young boy who was injured. Very quickly we had to assess whether or not this was a trap or whether he was an innocent bystander – it turned out he was – and take the appropriate action. Rugby obliges you to control the adrenaline rush, to keep cool while you are fired up.”

Rugby is not just a game that helps cadets get into the right mindset for the physical danger of battle, they also enjoy it. For “Mike Sheehan”, the team’s centre, it is the highlight of his time at West Point.

“Rugby is the best thing here. It makes the rest of life – which is sometimes very hard – more enjoyable, and gives you a little extra motivation. And the rugby guys are probably the best group of friends I’ve ever had. We call ourselves brothers.” The team motto is taken from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers/For he today that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother”.

Like all the cadets, the rugby players have had to grow up fast – their determination to live their lives to the full and create memories to draw on in the harder times ahead is palpable, and it creates a tight bond between them. As Sandonato says: “We’re not a bunch of rogues but we do try to make the most of any event, which generally happens if we do it together.”

Even if the strict environment of the academy sometimes makes it a little complicated, the tradition of beer drinking that goes hand in hand with rugby around the world seems to be respected here: two members of the programme were recently disciplined for sneaking out one Sunday after midnight for a few restorative ales.

Perhaps it wasn’t the drinking, but rugby’s esprit de corps is what attracted “Samuel Aidoo” to the game. He had the opportunity to come to West Point after tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as a private in the Rangers. “The platoon leaders I had come into contact with were rugby guys, and I wanted to stay close to the kind of people that rugby attracts. They were very focused, effective leaders, who emphasised individual responsibility and the importance of the team. There was no room for stars – it was all about self-sacrifice.”

The culture of self-sacrifice is omnipresent at West Point, where the motto is Duty Honor Country, but it is particularly evident one weekday afternoon as the team runs through a tackling drill. Pohlidal tells the ball carriers to “facilitate the tackle”, and his orders are followed to the letter as they turn themselves into moving targets: in almost suicidal fashion they jog slowly toward their team-mates without lowering themselves into a defensive stance or trying to avoid the hit.

In the eyes of a professional, this would look hopelessly naive – here, putting your body on the line in the service of others is a fact of life. Time and again they are smashed to the ground, then get up and go to take their turn as tacklers. Nobody flinches.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s