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They came. They saw. They ran. They passed the ball and caught it. But not a one of the half-dozen gentlemen playing football on the field adjacent to the old Lebanon Junior High School early Wednesday evening had ever heard of Brian Frampton.
Another half-dozen gents tossed a rugby ball around at the other end of the property. “Try there,” one of the footballers suggested. “They’re the tough guys.”
Recounting of the introduction-that-wasn’t made Frampton smile. It also made him consider recruiting the footballers for his Upper Valley Rugby Club.
As it is, Frampton has made considerable inroads in that area. What started out as a handful of rugby enthusiasts horsing around in the snow behind the Witherell Recreation Center last January is now the Upper Valley Mountain Men, a squad less than two weeks away from formal league play in the New England Rugby Football Union.
Most years, Upper Valley rugby has been limited to a deep Dartmouth College connection or the occasional high school club squad. A harmonic convergence of Dartmouth’s rugby reputation, Olympic attention and enough warm bodies looking for a match are bringing curious eyes in his favorite sport’s direction. Those willing to put in the time and effort like what they see.
“In my experience, and I’ve played in D.C. and up here now, it’s tough to get guys out for more than just organized rear-end-grabbing in the spring and summer; in fall, the guys come out,” said Frampton, who describes his club role as “marketing-slash-match secretary … and I’m also listed as coach.”
“Our summer season has been fantastic,” Frampton noted. “We might be just organizing a club, but we got it going quickly, elected officers and got our recruiting strategy with Facebook and posters and getting the word of mouth out there. The last three or four weeks, it’s taken off. Plus, we have all of the Dartmouth graduates and residents from the hospital coming, people from other areas with talent but without a team to play for.”
Frampton and his Upper Valley Mountain Men spent Saturday engaged in a preseason scrimmage in Portland, Maine. It gets real on Sept. 3: a 1 p.m. match on the old LJHS pitch against the Framingham (Mass.) Exiles to open the NERFU Division IV season.
Frampton has a core of about 15-25 players who he expects will be regulars for the nine-match schedule, plus another two dozen or so from which he can also draw. His ultimate goal: enough athletes to form first and second squads, maybe even start a women’s team.
First things first.
“As altruistic as it sounds, I wanted a club to play on,” Mountain Men founder Grant Gordon, of Plainfield, said. “I feel rugby is the best sport in the world. It incorporates everything a good sport should be: agility, strength and camaraderie. You don’t see it anywhere else.
“I feel as if any effort I can do to help spread it in the States, where it’s deficient in popularity, is a noble undertaking.”
NERFU’s fall schedule features four divisions of teams engaged in 15-man rugby. Standard playing field. Standard two halves of 40 minutes, running time. Promotion and relegation as with international club soccer. And, of course, post-match schmoozing with the guys you just spent two hours trying to grind into the turf.
Independent rugby — the kind without a Dartmouth affiliation — has had an on-again, off-again existence in the Upper Valley. Gordon was once part of a youth club, the Upper Valley Berserkers — “I have the dubious honor of having named that team,” he admitted — that faded after its coach left the area. Kimball Union Academy and Kearsarge High have sponsored school teams. But adults have had fewer opportunities.
“When I came back to the area, I found myself with the time and ability to play again,” said Gordon, 30, an assistant manager at Lebanon’s Salt Hill Pub. “Since there wasn’t a team, I obviously assumed there was a demand for one.”
Turned out he was correct. With recruitment efforts that included posters, email blasts and meetings at West Lebanon’s Kilton Library, Gordon drummed up enough interest to start informal workouts and gain sponsorship help from his employer.
Furthermore, some of the gents drawn to the new club became interested enough to invest their time in organizing it.
“I just think it’s great for the community,” said first-time rugger Alex Corindia, 27, of Lebanon, whose athletic background includes football experience at Hanover High a few years ago. “I think rugby a strong sport not only because of the intense competitive nature and just the sheer will and athleticism it requires, but also for the culture around it. It’s got a strong culture that brings a team closer together, brings a community together, and we’ve got the opportunity here to make a club that could be the envy of New Hampshire.”
Recruiting via poster also had an unexpected benefit: a veteran coach’s volunteer assistance. The collegiate women’s rugby season will take up Matt Cameron’s time soon enough, but he’s made many of the team’s workouts — he led Wednesday’s practice as well — to offer pointers.
“We’re all getting a taste of rugby that a lot of us have never seen before, and Dartmouth’s also involved in that,” said Cameron, the second-year assistant of the college’s varsity women’s rugby program. “Madison Hughes, the captain of the U.S. team (in Rio), is from here (a Dartmouth graduate). … It’s the fastest-growing sport in America, with something like a 20 percent increase in player registrations in the past 10 years.
“There’s a lot of exposure from the Olympics, the local connection, just more people playing rugby that ever before. What I told Grant when I first talked to him was of all the rural areas in the country where a club could be successful, this is the best possible place. There are unique factors that really gear it: There’s an established rugby culture here, and there is also a lot of people around here and a lot of athletes around here.”
If the game draws them, it’s the culture that keeps a lot of rugby players around.
One of the Mountain Men’s summer scrimmages came against Manchester’s Amoskeag Rugby Club, which has been around for more than 30 years and plays in NERFU’s second division, two above Upper Valley. “And we got obliterated,” Frampton reported. “We weren’t ready to play yet.”
But when it was all done, it was off to the pub for a pint and a chance to converse with more of rugby’s converted.
“We didn’t know a lot of other guys in the area, but it brings us all together,” said Frampton, who works as an advertising rep with the Valley News. “Auto mechanics and bartenders and guys with positions at the VA and other guys who are nerds doing strict research at Dartmouth, it brings all sorts of different classes and races and socio-economic (states) together. You forget some guy may be 20 or 62. You’re just friends. That’s a cool thing that you don’t expect in most other American sports.”
Little things remain to be done before the Upper Valley Rugby Club’s first competitive season commences. The old LJHS field won’t be painted until sometime this week. The club has yet to acquire — or build — goalposts, which will also need padding. The 15 hard-core players represent a minimum roster; the Mountain Men will need a few more players to be available when the inevitable injuries or schedule conflicts arise.
Like Amoskeag, Frampton can see a day — if the club continues to take off — where it can support men’s, women’s, youth and old boys squads. The organizational infrastructure is there. The NERFU credibility is there.
But first things first.
“I’m obviously getting older, and wear and tear takes a little bit different toll on me than it does a lot of the younger guys,” said Brooks Robey, of Hanover, a member of the faculty at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine who — at 57 — represents the Mountain Men’s most experienced participant. “As much as I can (play), I do; I really enjoy it. The game has been very good to me over the years, both in terms of discipline, fitness, friendships, a variety of different opportunities.
“These guys?” Robey added, looking at his fellow tough guys during Wednesday’s practice. “They’re totally different. They’re going to be in and out every weekend.”
Author Greg Fennell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3226.