“Aye olè olè,” whisper captains Jake Reinhardt and Nick Bongiorni. The 25 guys circled around them repeat the phrase at the same volume. “Teri tiki gumba,” the two continue.
And the team, slowly swaying with their arms around one another, repeat it again. “Musa musa musa.” The circle sways a little faster. “Aye olè, bali wae bali wae!” Reinhardt and Bongiorni smile to each other as the team repeats the last part. Now it’s time to get loud.
They go through this process twice more, gaining intensity with each statement. Then, it’s time for kickoff. “All I know is that it is the Haka that Marist Rugby has always done and is some sort of warrior’s chant,” said Reinhardt. “It hypes you up for the game like nothing else.”
The Haka is a type of war-chant that originates in the Southern Pacific and has been brought into the sports realm by the New Zealand All-Blacks, the most dominant national rugby team in the world. Many different versions of the tribal chant have been used by rugby teams for pregame inspiration and intimidation. At Marist, it’s been no different.
“It’s not something we practice,” said Bongiorni. “Freshman year, you’re just told to link arms and repeat after the captains before the game. It’s really a tradition like no other. It really hypes the guys up.” He went on to admit, “No one really knows what it means though.”
Marist Men’s Rugby Club was actually one of the highest nationally ranked teams on campus in the fall of 2017. The team climbed up to 37th nationally and currently sits at 45th in the country at the Division II level. They also were a couple playoff wins away from a chance to compete at nationals.
This success coincides with the new addition of head coach James Kimberly, who coached rugby at Nichols College in Dudley, MA for five years before joining Marist in the fall. “The first thing we wanted to focus on was building a system that these guys could get comfortable with because these last few years the guys haven’t had an official coach,” Kimberly said. Evan Menist had been at the helm for the past few years, but his busy work schedule combined with his graduate requirements only allowed him to work with the team part-time.
“I wanted to kind of get them to a place where they were a bit more organized and had expectations in terms of what they could do as a team and what they could do individually,” Kimberly said.
“There is definitely a much higher level of accountability among the players as far as their jobs and roles on the team,” Reinhardt said. “We had all this talent but nothing to tie it all together.”
Rugby is a unique sport on campus. It is the only team where the majority of the players had never played the sport before they came to college. Most do not even get a real grasp of all the rules until their second or third season. “Pretty much all the guys are coming from pasts in football or soccer,” Bongiorni said. “We take anyone who wants to be a part of [the team]. You come and play and figure it out.”
“The part I like most about it is the camaraderie,” Kimberly said. “And that comes with how brutal the sport is. It’s also the most violent sport in America.”
Brutal is the operative word. The game is broken up into 40 minute halves, where the clock is continuously running.
The uniform is made up of a tight jersey, short-shorts, high socks, a mouth guard and cleats. That’s the extent of the protective gear worn in this full-contact sport.
“I love getting out there and taking some shots to the dome,” joked junior Chris Moscatiello after an exhibition against Molloy College.
The difficulty the coach has faced comes in trying to create a nationally competitive program while balancing the fact that it is a club sport on campus. “We are playing at the third highest level of rugby competition in the country for colleges, so we play some serious national competition,” Kimberly said. “So we work hard at our four practices a week and have implemented some team lifts and film sessions.” Fitness is predominantly left up to the players, as practices are made up of mostly scrimmages.
Both Bongiorni and Reinhardt said that the only way to teach all the guys the game is by playing it. “I think rugby practices are so much more fun than football practices because you get to play,” Kimberly said.
Increasing the practice schedule is not an option though. As a club sport, he understands that students have priorities outside the team, but he also wants to instill the work ethic necessary to seriously compete for a national championship.
Many teams around Marist have instilled a “dry-season” to ensure optimal performance and focus during their respective seasons. Marist rugby did not and will not consider that option. Team-bonding is very important to everyone who plays.
Their annual participation in the Fishkill Polar Plunge, a benefit event for the New York Special Olympics, is evidence of just that. The team registers online and then each player must raise money in order to participate. “We usually raise around two to five grand every time we go,” Reinhardt said. It occurs on the last Saturday in February every year and always features an enthusiastic and rambunctious appearance from the well-hydrated men’s rugby team.
Chunky guys wearing short-shorts as they jump into a frozen lake is a sight to behold, which is why the team has been the life of the party the past few years. Their spontaneous renditions of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” only adds to the experience.
Men’s rugby is a successful, brutal, violent, intense, chill and chaotic collection of guys who have one goal for the future: go to nationals. “We have 13 (out of 15) returning starters, two top 100 recruits coming in, a few transfers and a returning all-conference player (Mike Vassallo),” Kimberly said. “So we are setting the elite goal of playing in the national championship next year.”