As cigar smoke whirls and beer pitchers slosh, Rick Stein cheers as he looks down on the rugby pitch he has called home for five years, and the team he played with for more than triple that.
“I paid my dues,” Stein says of his 17 years — from 1983 to 2000 — on the Pittsburgh Harlequins rugby team, “[So] I want my money’s worth.”
The Forest Hills resident was introduced to the game as a Pitt student in 1980, and after graduation, he continued playing with the Harlequins, Pittsburgh’s amateur rugby team.
Stein’s not alone; many former members of the team are taking in the Sept. 17 game at Founders Field in Cheswick. From a small deck on the second floor of the locker-room-cum-social-club, the raucous alums — who can’t help but attack the referee’s every call — form the nucleus of an energetic crowd taking in the Harlequins’ game against the Baltimore-Chesapeake Brumbies. (A brumby is a feral Australian horse.)
With nothing but about 15 feet and a thin yellow rope separating the wooden bleachers from the field, the crowd can feel as much as see the action. When a burly Brumbie charges full steam toward the try zone (an end zone in American football), the Harlequin defender’s incredulous “Oh shit” resonates through the entire crowd. A collective gasp is raised, and the dull slap of flesh on flesh — rugby is a game without pads — signaled the players’ collision.
Cheers soon followed, because despite being run over, the Harlequin still managed to trip up his opponent and prevent the score, called a try in rugby.
Following the game from the bleachers is Isaac Cason, a recent Wittenberg University graduate and rugby player.
“You’re cautious of how you hit [in rugby],” Cason says, noting that leading with the head is rare in the absence of helmets. “It’s more about technique and less about force.”
But despite that, the game is still physically impressive. With no blocking and near constant action, big runs usually have to be earned with stiff arms and churning through tackles. When one Harlequin player received a pass to the outside and twisted and turned his way through the Brumbies for a try, the crowd erupted. Stein’s celebratory chortle could be heard echoing across the field.
The Harlequins went on to win 32-19, leaving the field to a tunnel of alums offering high-fives and cheers. Standing nearby is Colby Bass, of the vanquished Brumbies. Despite a dirty uniform and a still-oozing, hastily stitched cut on his forehead, Bass is happily sipping a beer while chatting with friend and foe alike.
“I’ve wanted to get that scar,” he says, smiling.