Not long ago, Costa Rican rugby was still obscure. Few locals spoke of “hookers” or “scrums.” It was nearly impossible to find someone who could even explain the rules.
All of that has changed in the past few years: the Rugby Federation of Costa Rica now involves hundreds of players each season. “Football clubs,” as teams are known, have popped up in such towns as Heredia, Cartago, and Coronado. Fans actually show up to watch games. While the Rugby Federation has existed under different names since 1984, the sport is finally catching mainstream attention.
This weekend, the Rugby Federation hosts its “Gran Final” between El Universitarios Club de Rugby (UCRugby) and Stag Rugby Football Club, based in San José. This final match will determine who wins this year’s National Championship – the 15th such series in the Federation’s history.
“When I got here to Costa Rica,” said Lucas Withington, “there was only one team. Everybody knew we had to have two teams in order to have a competition.”
Withington was born and raised in Argentina, but he came to Costa Rica eight years ago. Since then, Withington has become quite the busy resident: He has served as head chef of a restaurant, he owns a hostel in Los Yoses, and he fashions hand-made grills. But Withington has also become a major proponent of rugby, and his enthusiasm and drive have proved infectious.
“My father was a rugby player,” he recalled recently to The Tico Times. “I was six years old when I started. You need a lot of effort to play rugby. The big thing is, you see the personality, you see what the person is [made of].”
In many ways, rugby is the perfect mix of soccer and American football: Players carry the ball and move gradually down the field, blocking and tackling each other as they go. But the actions take more time than gridiron football, and the sport is played without helmets or serious padding. Like soccer, rugby doesn’t require much more than a ball and a level stretch of grass.
“It’s a brutal sport played by gentlemen,” said Withington with a customary chuckle.
This year, the Gran Final will appeal to more than seasoned rugby fans. The San José Rugby Club has personally invited 120 area children to participate in a daylong event called Get Into Rugby. The boys and girls range in age from two to 18 years old, and activities include yoga, basketball, and tango lessons as well as rugby. All visitors can partake in food and live music as well.
True to the “rugger” tradition, adult players and fans will retire to a bar in Los Yoses to celebrate the end of the championship. For every beer sold at the after-party, 100 colones will benefit rugby initiatives.
“That is the [ritual],” said Withington. “You have the best match you can in the field, like warriors. But then you invite the other team to beer and food.”
Tournament takes place Sept. 7 at the French-Costa Rican School, Concepción de Tres Ríos. Free. Info: Rugby Federation website.