Story by Aaron Kandell
Photo by Elyse Butler
There’s a saying among professional ruggers: “Rugby is a thug sport played by gentlemen.” To the uninitiated, the game looks like a violent mishmash of American football, soccer and good old-fashioned street brawl. It’s not for the weak or elderly, only the toughest of men. Still, for the aging scrummer, nothing gets the old ticker pumping more than running a ball down a field of would-be tacklers sans helmet or pads. Which is why this September 23 through 30, forty-five gray-haired teams from twelve countries will descend on Kapi‘olani Park in Waikiki for the kickoff of the fifth World Vintage Rugby Carnival.
The tournament, which is held in a different city every two years (the last was in Cape Town, South Africa), was born in response to a growing demand from older athletes for a not quite full-contact game. Vintage Rugby offers players of all nationalities and fitness levels a chance to relive their glory days without risk of mutilation. There are two age divisions, one for 35 to 45 and one for 46 and over. To ensure that play favors gentlemen over thugs, athletes 65 and older wear a bright red vest to prevent them from being tackled: A firm and manly hug is all an opponent may do to stop their forward progress. Which is just fine, because there aren’t any bragging rights at stake. “The emphasis at each carnival is on enjoyment,” says director Paul Gleeson, “so there are no winners and no scores kept. It’s all about honoring the game and honoring each other.”
For the old-timers, who prove you’re never too old for a mauling, Vintage Rugby is all in good fun. Hence the team names: the Cracked Conchs (Bahamas), the Creaky Ol’ Convicts (Norfolk Island) and the Toothless Gators (Queensland). And while this might be a slightly kinder, gentler rugby than the pounding you’re likely to see at a World Cup match, players won’t be holding back altogether: At the end of the day, rugby wouldn’t be rugby without a few bruises to show off like medals.
Nor, of course, would it be a real rugby match without a beer garden—set up close enough that the weary warriors and their fans needn’t drag themselves too far for a postgame pint.