story by Liza Simon
photo by Ann Cecil
The Hawai‘i Harlequins know exactly what our Yankee eyes see when we watch their beloved Brit-born rugby: a marauding mob of thirty on the field, bodies slammed together in a messy mass called a “scrum.” Compare this to, say, basketball’s sleek ten men on the court. If this game hails from the world of tea and crumpets, why does it get so bloody…well…uh…bloody?
The Harlequins—members of Hawai‘i’s oldest rugby club—shed some light as they gather for one of their practices at Kaimuki’s Kapaolono Park. “Rugby is a barbarian’s game played by gentlemen,” says John Wilbur, the club’s ranking Old Boy and an NFL veteran who played at the Superbowl. Wilbur claims that his time with the Harlequins has been just plain fun compared to all that professional primetime mania and explains that rugby’s reputed loutishness is unfounded: The hard tackles of American football are banned in rugby, he says; also taboo is any untoward jeering of the opposing team.
Moreover, Wilbur and his Harlequin comrades say here in the Islands, hospitality is the sport’s outstanding trait. Rugby has actually existed in Hawai‘i for a long time, thanks to Samoans and Tongans and Fijians who played with passion in their home villages and then transplanted the game informally to local backyards and lu‘au. In 1964 a visiting Irishman, Dr. Jack Keenan, founded the Harlequins as the state’s first organized club. The effort attracted a motley mix of jocks who shared a commitment to post-game aloha: “Win or lose, we take visiting teams out on Waikiki pub crawls and even pick up their beer tab,” notes Wilbur.
Over the years, other Island rugby clubs formed, though not enough to guarantee a lot of play. Then a Harlequin brainstorm hit: Hold a tournament and they will come. This year’s Hawai‘i Harlequins Invitational is set for Kapi‘olani Park in October. Meanwhile, player Mark Yokota urges us rugby-challenged Yanks (women, too) to
try out Harlequin practice sessions, held Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Rugby is a game that absolutely emphasizes teamwork, so you don’t have to have a six-foot-plus physique to make it,” he says. “The main thing is to play with heart.”