The Kansas University Rugby Football Club has enjoyed its travels to France, Argentina and about half a dozen other countries, but club members also will be happy when their trips become less frequent.
When not galavanting about the globe, the club often is traveling the United States in search of stiffer rugby competition than can be found in these parts. However, that picture might soon change as rugby programs in the Midwest become more established.
"Hopefully, we're going to see a big improvement in collegiate level competition in this part of the country," said Dominic Barnao, head coach for the rugby club. "It helps the team improve. It means we don't have to travel all the time to get decent competition. That starts to wear on your pocketbook after awhile.
"Just in the seven years I've been here, I've seen a huge improvement in the competition."
KU'S BIGGEST rugby rival has been Kansas State University, and the Heart of America rugby title has gone back and forth between the two schools for the last 10 years. The Heart of America Rugby Conference takes in Kansas and the western part of Missouri.
After KU won the Heart of America title in 1990, it went on to place second in Western Rugby Football Union competition. For an idea of just how far KU advanced, the top team in the Western rugby union goes on to play in the "final four" of national rugby competition.
Just as KU's collegiate rugby team has made a name for itself, so has its "club" team. Eligible to play on the collegiate team are all full-time undergraduate students. Meanwhile, graduate students, people not attending KU and those KU undergraduates who make the grade are eligible to play on the club team.
KU'S CLUB TEAM has won the Heart of America championship the last two years in a row. Advancing to Western union competition, the team took fourth in 1990 and fifth this year.
Contributing to the KU rugby club's success is the fact that it has been around since 1964.
"It's been going 25 years now, and a good organization base has built up through the years," Barnao said. "We're lucky that we have a dual club and collegiate system. That allows the collegiate players to work with more experienced people."
Paul Diedrich, sponsor of the KU Rugby Football Club, said sometimes it's hard to decide whether a good college player should be assigned to the collegiate team or the club team.
"SOMETIMES we're robbing Peter to pay Paul, but that's a good problem," Diedrich said. "Many places don't have enough local talent to have that kind of problem."
About 75 people participated in the rugby club last season. Players who are not selected for the collegiate or club teams can play on the club's reserve teams.
The KU Rugby Football Club got more than its fair share of competition between 1977 and 1989, when it traveled every other year to foreign countries. The club competed in Holland, New Zealand, Argentina, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Belgium and France.
"Those guys basically eat, drink and sleep rugby," Barnao, who himself hails from New Zealand, said of KU's international opponents.
"It was kind of a learning experience to see how rugby is played in other countries," Diedrich said.
Barnao said the traveling also was a way to develop "instant friendships."
"THE GREAT thing about rugby is the camaraderie, and it's not just among the team members. After the game, you forget about what's happened on the field," Barnao said. "If you ever see those people again, they'll always remember you."
The KU rugby club hasn't competed abroad for two years, but Barnao said plans are being made for a trip to New Zealand and Australia next year. He said it takes a lot of commitment on the part of local rugby players to organize a trip abroad.
Barnao added that U.S. rugby players in general must have a lot more commitment to the sport than players from other countries, where rugby programs receive strong financial backing.
"The U.S. rugby player basically funds himself," he said.
The comic strip "Andy Capp" illustrates that being tackled is one of the roughest aspects of rugby. However, Diedrich said, running around a field for 40 minutes practically non-stop has got to be the toughest part of the game.
For players 35 and older who perhaps cannot keep up with the younger players, the KU rugby club also has a "Grayhawks" team. For rugby enthusiasts not yet in college, the KU rugby club has a youth program that allows Lawrence High School students to play during the spring semester.