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The Secret Kingdom of Indoor Rugby in Albany

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“Aw hey man, yeah, glad you could make it!” a half hug, half handshake.

A water bottle flies through the air and lands with a thud on an overflowing gym bag.

“No cleats! No cleats!” a girl yells from the other side of the turf gym.

“Toss around – circle up!” someone shouts from the sidelines.

All around me as I take my seat among the hard, plastic chairs, there are rugby balls soaring through the air and broad men and women lumbering toward the field. I feel as though I’ve stumbled upon a meeting of modern Vikings. But instead of archaic woods, we are surrounded by a mesh net divider and instead of great furs and curved horns they adjust too-tight, brightly colored jerseys and tiny shorts.

But Vikings they certainly are.

Here at Afrims Sports Complex, in a tiny corner of Albany, New York, about fifty men and ten women gather for this little known league of indoor touch rugby. Why?

“Time to knock off that rust, ya know?” I overhear one saying to another.

These practices are open to anyone who loves rugby: men, women, students, local professionals, coaches, and yes, even tag-a-longs like me. If you happened to catch the post on the Albany Nick’s Team Facebook page, you could stop by any Wednesday from 8:30 to 9:45, pay your five-dollar fee, and line up.

“On the line!” a girl announces. There is no whistle, no anything, really. Just people yelling at each other and laughing as they rough-house.

The players count off, one through six, and break into groups.

“ONES! ANYONE A ONE? ONES OVER HERE! Oh… you guys are ones? My bad. ONES OVER THERE!”

“ANYONE A SIX? … AM I THE ONLY SIX? … Dude I’m the only six.”

The field is divided in half and two games start running at the same time. To me, someone new to the hoard, all of their customs are strange. A very large man taps the ball to his foot, feints left, then darts forward. He tosses the ball. A woman yells, “That’s one!”

The women are powerful. These are not the sort of women you see carefully designing their bedazzled nails. These are broad-shouldered, eye-focused, hair in a messy bun kind of women. These are open your mouth and fire back women. I find myself wondering who they are outside of this secret space. Maybe at a bar they feel too big. Maybe in class they are rough around the edges. Maybe their parents wish they were more “lady-like.” But not here. Here they rule ages and kingdoms. Here they spit. Here they rumble and roar and toss. Here they say, “That’s five!” and clap for the damn rugby ball. “Let’s go!”

A man, standing in front of me on the sidelines is commentating, half to himself, half to his buddy, who happens to be half listening.

“He was complaining that I touched the ball and not him, I mean I touched the ball. He’s carrying the ball.”

“Yea, man. If you’re debating the rules of touch rugby you’re missing the point of touch rugby.”

I have no idea what they are talking about, but I want to agree. “Yea, seriously.” I want to say. “Respect the play,” I could add, nonchalantly. But there is just that one small detail of me not having a clue what is going on. So, I remain silent.

These vikings, these jokesters, these smelly, lumbering heroes of sport, will be here for the next 9 weeks. With them they will bring their dirty gym clothes, their body odor, their too-long hair sprouting over sweatbands, their laughter, their high-fives, and their love of the game.

Something about the drafty, warm air and their contagious child-like insults, a brief reprieve from adult-life and a reversion back to youth, makes me want to be here for the next 9 weeks, too.

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