An unheralded team in an unheralded sport, the Tucson Magpies rugby club enters 2013 league play with high expectations after consecutive Sweet 16 appearances in the national playoffs.
A series of upset wins last year propelled the Magpies to fourth place nationally, the club's best season in its 33-year history. That topped the 2011 season, in which the Magpies finished 12th in the country out of 192 men's Division III teams. The team kicks off its next season Jan. 12 in Phoenix before opening the home schedule on Jan. 19, hosting Red Mountain at Estevan Park.
"For the players who've been around for some time, it was a great sense of satisfaction. They've been chipping away at this thing for a long time and they finally got the right group of guys and it paid off for them," says coach Tim Pappas. "This year we're in a bit of a rebuilding phase. We had a core group of guys move out of town and we have some injuries we're dealing with. I'm hopeful, but we'll have to wait and see."
Rugby, a form of football that originated in the 1800s in England, is the de facto national sport of Australia and New Zealand. Though it's been played in the United States since 1874, rugby was dropped from the Olympics after the U.S. victory in 1924 and American interest in the sport plummeted for half a century.
During the 1970s, rugby found its popularity growing. In 1975, the United States of America Rugby Football Union (now known as USA Rugby) was formed to serve as the game's national governing body. In that same year, the Old Pueblo Lions became Tucson's first club. The Magpies were established five years later by University of Arizona ruggers Dave Sitton, Rick Rendon and Rich Rectanus.
Today, the Magpies club has 58 registered players, though countless alumni participate in practices and scrimmages. That support helped pay for the club's trip to nationals in Glendale, Colo., says John Rouff, president of the Magpies and captain of its competitive squad.
"The club goes pretty deep. The nature of rugby is it's not an individual sport. Even in basketball and football, it's easy to rely on one guy," Rouff says.
Last year, the Magpies took a 7-3 regular season record in the Arizona Union into the Southern California regional playoffs. It then made it to the final four, reeling off five consecutive postseason victories, including 57-12 and 25-10 wins over the Kansas City and Wichita squads, which RugbyMag.com called "West region powers." The Magpies' run ended with a 36-8 defeat at the hands of the national champion New Orleans club.
For longtime Magpies like Cody Dieffenbach and Ian Patterson, the successful seasons have been a thrill that makes all the years of hard work worth it.
Patterson, a 37-year-old entering his 20th season with the Magpies, didn't skip a beat in picking up the sport, going from his last high school football game at Rincon one Friday night to his first rugby game the following Saturday afternoon. It's been a central part of his entire adult life.
"I still have trouble sleeping the night before games," he says. "The minute I step onto that field, I'm a Tucson Magpie. I'm not Ian Patterson any more. That's the sacrifice I'm willing to make for the love of the game.
"I come from a big family and I consider these guys my family. I met my doctor through rugby. I met the guy I work for through rugby. I met the guy who officiated my wedding through rugby. My kids think of these guys as uncles," he says.
Patterson, a private investigator, knows he's near the end of his competitive rugby days, with concussion issues and a host of broken bones—fingers, ribs, sternum—over the years. But he'll always be a Magpie.
Dieffenbach, who picked up the sport from his father in Idaho, has been through some poor seasons in his 11 years with the Magpies, so he knows how special it is to experience winning seasons. But win or lose, it's the game he loves.
"At the end of the game you're just whupped. Not only have you been running the entire time, but you're hitting and getting hit. It's definitely a unique attribute for a sport, but I like the flow. I don't like taking breaks," he says.
"The one thing that guys love is trying to knock the shit out of each other and then go have a beer with them. It's good to leave everything on the field. We're all rugby players when it comes down to it. We all know what a beautiful sport we play. You need opponents, so you respect anyone out there playing. I want to run through them and they want to do the same to me. And then when the battle's over, we celebrate and feast."
At 24, Paul Ageh is already among the most experienced Magpies, having started playing rugby when he was 15 on Tucson's Badgers/Barbarians team.
"I love the intensity, the brotherhood and just being competitive," says Ageh, an airplane mechanic. "I get antsy during the week just thinking about the games. I love the game itself. Everyone can tough the ball and there's a position for everybody because it's a game with a lot of different skills."
Coach Pappas, who played rugby for 21 seasons, says the Magpies are a club first and foremost, and that the instant people join—whatever their skill level or experience or athletic ability—they share in the camaraderie.
"Rugby is very unique in the aspect that after you've finished playing—and the game can be fierce and emotional and aggressive—you sit down and have a meal together and get along. That's lost in other sports and it's the great thing about rugby. After you've done the combat, you get together."