Lawhorn’s Lawrence: Keeping it between the lines with rugby

Members of the Kansas Jayhawks Football Rugby Club gather before the start of their match against the Kansas City Football Rugby Club on Oct. 4 at Westwick Rugby Complex, located south of Lawrence at East 1094 Road. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the club.

Kansas freshman Sam Billman, of Overland Park, listens to his coach speak before the start of their match against the Kansas City Football Rugby Club on Oct. 4 at Westwick Rugby Complex.

Upcoming game

The Kansas Jayhawks Rugby Football Club plays its games at the Westwick Rugby Complex, which is along North 1200 Road about two miles west of U.S. Highway 59. The club’s last home game of the season is Oct. 25 against Kansas State.

When the Kansas Jayhawks Rugby Football Club played a rival Kansas City team late last month, the match became so rough that five Jayhawk team members had black eyes when it was all over.

You can probably guess what type of activity those two clubs engaged in as the final whistle sounded.

Yes, they got together and shared some hot dogs, cold beverages and caught up on mutual friends and old stories. What? You were expecting something different? That’s OK, even though the Jayhawk rugby club is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, not all of us have quite grasped the sport yet.

In rugby, the time period right after the game is called the Third Half. It is a time-honored tradition that the home team will host the visiting team for a social event after the match. Sometimes it is just a barbecue near the field. Other times it is a formal banquet that lasts for a few hours. Men with black eyes, dislocated fingers and bloodied elbows sitting across from the men who gave them such souvenirs. Multiple rugby players swear to me that Third Halves don’t end with men wearing bowls of mashed potatoes like a hat.

“What happens between the lines stays between the lines,” says Grant Lechtenberg, a Lawrence resident and longtime rugby player. “It is a hard concept for Americans to wrap their heads around. We go through a line at the end of a game and slap hands and say ‘good game’ and maybe not really mean it. Rugby is just a different deal.”

Former rugby player and longtime rugby club organizer Rick Renfro can attest to that. Just how different is this sport? Well, start with the stories.

“When I started playing, it was a rebel sport,” Renfro says of when he started in 1975. “You just played hard and got a keg of beer and had fun. That is where all those rumors of rugby players getting naked got started.”

Pardon me? Naked what? If I don’t ask a follow-up question to that, they should strip me of my official journalist pencil that is tucked behind my ear. I do ask, but I guess that what happens between the lines really does stay between the lines.

“There were no adults around to monitor our behavior,” Renfro says. “That is all I will say.”

What you can see of the sport, though, is plenty interesting. People often say it is football without the pads, but Renfro describes it differently.

“It really is more like tackle basketball,” Renfro says.

That’s because unlike football there aren’t switches of offensive and defensive players. When a player isn’t on offense, he is on defense. What little I know of the rules of rugby is there are no forward passes, although forward kicks are allowed. Teams try to run — or most often dive — the ball across a goal line for five points. There are various types of kicks that can be made for two or three points, depending on the type. Men can rip the ball out of your hands. Rugby players often find themselves engaged in rucks, mauls or scrums, which all appear to be different types of piles of men. You know you are onto something when your sport has so many different types of pileups that you have to name them.

If you want to know more about the rules of rugby, you are going to have to ask a guy with a black eye.

But I did gather that lots of things can happen in those piles. Rugby players often talk about the relative safety of the sport, but then add a disclaimer that usually goes like: Sure, there are some broken fingers. Sure there are some stitches sometimes. Sure there are some . . .

“I tell moms that there are fewer serious injuries in rugby than there are in football,” says Renfro. “In rugby, you know when you are going to get hit and you can prepare your body for the hit. But I admit, when you are looking at it, it does look like holy (expletive.)”

Which brings up the question of what Grant Lechtenberg is doing. He’s 42 years old and still playing rugby. The Kansas Jayhawks Rugby Football Club isn’t just for college students. The club runs a high school team, a team for KU college students and a club team that is open to anyone. Lechtenberg plays on the club team, but he is still a rarity. He’s a good 15 years older than the average club player. He said there is a secret to playing rugby into his 40s.

“Getting permission from my wife,” he says.

Good luck with his health also has been a key, although he says he has broken a leg and “some ankles” playing the sport.

“I do play every game like it is my last,” he says.

Renfro long gave up playing the sport, but he’s remained an active leader of the club. He and four other club members bought property south of Lawrence to host the club’s pair of fields and other amenities. But as far as the playing goes, he’s turned it over to kids like Daniel Buescher, a KU sophomore from Shawnee. Like other college players on the team, they don’t receive a scholarship to play, but actually pay a few hundred dollars a year to play and travel with the club.

“It is a ruffian sport played by gentlemen,” Buescher says.

Renfro says he and other longtime club members are proud of how the rugby tradition has evolved here.

“It has matured a lot,” Renfro says.

That’s one of the funny things about rugby. It centers around some of the wildest activities a child would ever hope to do — tackling, shoving, wallering — but so many say the sport teaches you much about growing up. It goes beyond the aspects of team work and hard work, and delves into issues like perspective, honor and bonds that are made to last for life.

Many times, they are bonds that are made across the globe. The rugby club every other year makes an international trip to play games abroad. Rugby players often talk of their friends who live in England or New Zealand or some other country where rugby players are treated like kings. One told me about how he ended up at a wedding in Wales thanks to rugby. Last weekend, the club hosted a celebration for its 50th anniversary. Nearly 200 former club members and opponents showed up to celebrate, with several of them traveling in from overseas.

Renfro has a long list of countries he’s been to thanks to rugby: England, Scotland, Wales, France, New Zealand, South Africa on four different occasions, and several others. But rugby has done a lot more than make Rick Renfro a well-traveled man. You all know Rick. He’s an owner of the famed Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence, which has grown into a business with locations throughout Kansas City. Renfro doesn’t hesitate to say that none of that would have happened without rugby.

He bought the Johnny’s in North Lawrence in 1978 for one reason.

“The one thing I knew in life at that time was that I wanted to keep playing rugby for a few more years,” Renfro said. “This bar let me do that.”

Still today the upper floor of Johnny’s has a clubhouse for the rugby team, complete with trophies, old photos and other memorabilia from the history of the club, which is believed to be the oldest club in the Midwest.

“The reason I own this bar is rugby,” he says. “The reason I’ve traveled like I have is rugby. The reason I have the friends I do is because of rugby. It has been the hobby of my life.”

Along the way, it has been a teacher of life’s lessons too. Surely one of them is this: Even with black eyes and broken fingers, if you keep life between the lines, you can make friends with almost anyone.

But, please, keep your clothes on.