Rugby Refs and D.C. United Fans at Nats Game
So I'm sitting here in the press box thinking about what sort of blogging I can offer the world, since Barry's blogging the actual baseball game, and I'm not sure how many people care about the name of Kelli Johnson's fantasy baseball team, so instead I decide I'll go wander around and see if I can find something that I cover but the rest of The Post doesn't, which, at this point, is just rugby and D.C. United fans.
Luckily, on the 500 level, near the enormously endless line for Dippin' Dots, I ran into Paul Planzer, aka Captain, one of the
Elders stalwarts of the Barra Brava, the D.C. United supporters group. We chatted about the Barra's upcoming plans, which, as DCU fan Banshee Jay e-mailed me today, include a 75-person contingent traveling to Denver for the season opener and a fairly energetic tailgate for the home opener. [Edit: Many of the contingent people will be Screaming Eagles, I'm told, whom I also love dearly.]
And directly behind Captain in the beer line was Jim McNeely, a well-built man wearing a PAC Rugby shirt. He's mostly given up the rugby in favor of cyclo-cross, a sport I had never heard of. Even better, he's also a rugby ref, and he told me he was at the Nats game with a group of about 30, who assembled in honor of two rugby exchange refs from the UK. So naturally I directed Jim to take me to the refs, the refs being Andy Canning and Ron Gore of the East Midlands Rugby Union Referees' Society.
Up in section 520, I got some background from Tom Lyons of the Potomac Society of Rugby Football Referees. PSRFR actually has several refs exchange programs, as does EMRURS. The exchange programs are meant to ensure that all refs in all countries can call rugby games the same way, using the same standards and the same terminology, without players complaining "hey, we're allowed to do that over here." Also, refereeing being the loneliest of hobbies, such exchanges allow refs to get in some rare socializing; the visitors are taken to the monuments and the museums and all that; they go eat crabs in Baltimore and go check out baseball games in between reffing college games and high school games and men's league games.
("Your writing is more messier than mine," Tom's son James pointed out during this interview. James and his brother Garrett both play youth rugby, naturally.)
And this week's visitors are quite accomplished, as it turns out. Ron's been a ref for 23 or 24 years. He stayed at levels 5 and 6, the highest levels you can reach without going national.
"Now then, this young man next to me...." he said.
"Young blade," Andy said.
"He got to the giddy heights of the National Panel," Ron continued. "That's a pretty high level."
"An elite level," Tom Lyons seconded.
"That's it, elite," Andy agreed. "E, L, I, T, E."
But no joke, the National Panel is an elite level. There are about 65 on the actual panel, only seven of whom are fully professional. Andy got as high as No. 29 on the panel, which is grade 2, behind only the Premiership, meaning he was doing women's international games, U-19 international games, reserve division (i.e. "Wanderers") games and so on. Sort of like a top AAA umpire, I guess.
"I never figured out who he was humping, but there you go," Ron said. "Yes, go ahead and write that. It's quite normal."
Andy had been a strong player, at levels 7 and 8, but he injured his knee. He was an English policeman, so he couldn't put his career on hold to recover, and so he took up refereeing instead. He stepped down from the National Panel for work reasons, so he's back to working local games.
Fans up in 520 did the wave, and everyone stood for the 7th Inning stretch (attendance: 40,389). Ron said he's learned quite a bit about baseball this afternoon; he said the home side seemed to have switched tactics midway through, opting less for the slugging and more for putting the ball in play, and he said it seemed to have worked judging by the scoreboard. (Dmitri Young got a double while I was up there, almost living up to his son's pre-game promise.) Ron appreciated how baseball was such a tactical sport. Andy was less confident.
"I understand about the eating and the drinking and the socializing, but the baseball...." he said. "It's about like when we take these guys to cricket."
Anyhow, Opening Day is about being a tad saccharine, and so I'll quote the refs as they spoke about the reffing life.
"You're quite lonely, because you're on your own all the time," Andy said.
"Refereeing is a lonely sport, whatever sport you're in," Ron said. "You love the game and you have great respect for that game. At the end of the day, you're out there for the 31, 32 people who are enjoying the game. That's really the bottom line for most referees."
"The thing with rugby, it's all about enjoying the game," Andy said. "It's not about the money, it's not about progression. It's about enjoying the game."
[Note: If The Post starts a rugby refs blog, I'm quitting.]
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