A CONFLUENCE OF EVENTS
How a Hampton Roads rugby contingent has brought hundreds to an International Stage
By Mike Herron
Who would have thought a reunion trip down memory lane would turn into a life changing experience? But that’s exactly what it was, and what it has become, for hundreds a maturing athletes around the state of Virginia and beyond.
It started with that one reunion weekend in 2002.
John Ellis, a former Norfolk City Blues rugby player, and local insurance executive, assembled a reunion of former Blues players to participate in one of the oldest and most prestigious rugby tournaments in the United Sates, the Aspen Ruggerfest, in Aspen, Colorado. Ellis was familiar with the tournament from reading about it for years in Rugby Magazine and from visiting Aspen for his other passion, Skiing. He was sure he could talk his old mates into making a trip out west to one of America’s most posh vacation destinations while putting in a rugby match or two.
Ellis, a pretty good salesman, quickly assembled a team of consisting of two attorneys, a cardiologist, a scientist, and over a dozen business executives and several business owners. They all had one thing in common; they had played rugby at a fairly high level, but mostly in the past. Just over a handful were still active players. He rounded out the team with a handful of players with ties to the Virginia Rugby Club in Charlottesville, which including Terry Whelan, a chiropractor who had represented the United States internationally playing for the U.S. national team, The Eagles.
The team, playfully named the Sons of Beaches, had been entered by Ellis into the 45+ bracket. After winning four straight games in one day, against four different teams, at an altitude of over 11,000 feet, they marched into a final on a Sunday against a national recognized master’s team, the California Bald Eagles, whom they had already beaten on the way to the final. After winning a close final in front of a crowd of over a thousand spectators ringing Aspen’s centrally located Wagner Park, they basking in some new found glory.
Although the team had gone 5-0, they were taken back by the high level of play in this “Masters” Old Boys bracket. They resolved to come back the following year to defend their title. When four players couldn’t return, each was replaced, and again the Sons of Beaches found themselves in the finals. This time though, in a match chronicled in Rugby Magazine, the SOB’s found themselves playing essentially the top players from all of the other teams, and they lost a close final.
Deciding it was time to do something different; the team changed geographic direction and entered a Virginia team in the 40+ bracket of the Canada-American Rugby Tournament in Saranac Lake, New York, the largest tournament in North America. This team also found success, but lost an overtime match on the second day of the tournament and went home wanting more. After settling on the Virginia Cardinals as their new name, the Cardinals then entered two teams in the Fort Lauderdale International Ruggerfest, this time appearing in both the 35+ and 45+ brackets. Both teams were deep in talent, and both swept to Championships over stiff competition. The following year the Cardinals returned both teams and again left undefeated.
Unfortunately, they hadn’t been as successful at the Can-Am tournament, as again in their second effort, this time in the 45+ bracket, they were bounced from the tournament by an always tough Blackthorn team from Philadelphia. However, in the 32nd Annual Can-Am, the Cardinals stormed to the 45+ title, with a 19-0 win over the defending champions and hometown team, the Mountaineer Old Boys of Saranac Lake. That same year, 2005, the Cardinals returned to the Aspen Ruggerfest. After defeating the Denver Barbarians, a perennial national power (whom coincidentally the Norfolk Blues had lost to in the “Final Four” of U.S. Division I Rugby back in 1982) 22-7 to earn a place in 45+ finals, the Cardinals won a hard fought match over the host club, the Gentleman of Aspen, another national powerhouse club. That victory set their record for the year at 14 wins against zero loses.
The Cardinals 35+ team had also become a dominant team. Adding to two Fort Lauderdale Championships, the 35+ team has won the Saint Patrick’s Day Tournament in Savannah, Georgia, and has played in three consecutive Aspen Ruggerfest Finals. This past year, they played the preliminary match to the Canada versus United States by facing off against the Classic East squad.
In the 6 years of their existence, the Cardinals have achieved 22 finals and have won 16 tournament bracket championships. They now have regular players from 17 states on their rosters and they have begun to supplement other rugby teams and tours. This past year 11 Cardinals players went with the Life University Alumni, led by Terry Whelan, a Life alumnus, to the Missoula Montana Maggotfest. In Montana they defeated Missoula, Vancouver and Eastern Washington University, whose oldest player was 24 years old. Most of the Cardinal players were in their 50’s. Rich Etzkorn, a Cardinal player from St. Louis is leading a rugby tour to Chile this summer and several Cardinals will be along on a tour to Scotland with the Washington (D.C.) Poltroons later this year. Many members of the team went to the Rugby World Cup this past year in France on a trip to cheer on the United States Team. The Cardinals team will be hosted in Vancouver, British Columbia in May for two matches against Canadian clubs.
The Cardinals have also become a family. Early last year, one of their key players and organizers, Lance Van de Castle, was tragically killed in an automobile accident. Van de Castle was quite a man; testified by close to 800 people who attended his memorial service in the small town of Madison, Virginia, near Charlottesville. The team rallied around Lance’s wife Karen and dedicated their new 50+ squad’s season to him. The 50+ team billed themselves as the Virginia Cardinal’s Black Dots, because most of them had now become the older members of the group, and they needed a black dot next to their name on their roster indicating it was time to move up an age group. The Black Dots emblazoned Lance’s name on their jerseys while going undefeated, winning crowns in Fort Lauderdale, Saranac Lake and Aspen.
It has become a real family affair, with not only wives and girlfriends attending tournaments, but entire families. An annual banquet has been used to close each season.
Although the organization began as a simple “Old Boys” rugby tour, it has blossomed into a full fledged rugby organization. Now an official 501 C-3 organization, the Cardinals have launched a new website, www.CardinalsRugby.com, to attract more participants and to broaden its rugby efforts into other areas such as developmental teams and international tours. The Cardinals like to refer to themselves as an “inclusive” group. Moosehead, USA, a Canadian beer distributor, is currently sponsoring an advertising campaign in Rugby Magazine to bring attention to the Cardinals growth objectives. Their aim is to find a place for anyone in the organization, on or off the field, who wants to advance the image of rugby in the United States. And obviously, have a good time doing it.
Notably, past attracting more players to their efforts, the organization is beginning to extend the playing careers of players past the normal run, which usually would end somewhere in their twenties or thirties, by providing a new less frequent option. Tournaments have already begun to take notice and are promoting higher age-group brackets. Older players are attracted to different venues because they seek the adventure, and they’re also more likely to be able to afford the travel. This trend has been the norm in countries steeped in rugby heritage, with generations of players playing for the same home club. Thanks to the efforts of the Cardinals, a new rugby lifestyle, rugby for one’s full life cycle, is beginning to take hold here in United States.
Mike Herron is General Manager of Hampton Roads Employment Weekly and Associate Publisher of Inside Business, the Hampton Roads Business Journal. He began his rugby playing with the Norfolk Irish Rugby Club and is a founding member of the Norfolk City Blues Rugby Club. He continues to play rugby regularly at the age of 53 with the Cardinals Rugby Club.