FOR: Marine Drive Magazine
27 Feb 2012
BY: Stephanie Lundberg
Guam rugby is a tough sport, but it’s also a social one. “It’s a serious social tournament,” jokes Stephen Grantham about the Budweiser True GRIT Guam Rugby International Tournament, the highlight of the rugby season on Guam. He’s a former businessman from New Zealand, now retired, and the current president of the Guam Rugby Club.
Formed in 1997 as way to officially consolidate the sport on the island for joining the Guam National Olympic Committee, the GRC’s creation made it possible for Guam to host—and join—the South Pacific Games in 1999. The True GRIT tournament was put together in 1998 to help Guam rugby players prepare for international competition, and it’s been repeated every year since.
This year the True GRIT tournament celebrates its 15th anniversary, and will welcome local and international teams alike when it kicks off in March. “Generally we have two or three teams come down from Japan. We’ve had teams from Australia, we’ve had teams from Hong Kong. The Hong Kong national women’s team has been over a couple of times just to play, because they have a big tournament in March, so they need, want some sort of warm-up tournament where they get tackled. It’s just a good fun tournament with a party atmosphere,” Grantham says.
He emphasizes the communal element of Rugby, particularly for the True GRIT tournament, when the GRC arranges shorter games to allow for the players to socialize as well as compete. “We play tens, which is [games that are] ten minutes each way, which is more fitting for a weekend tournament,” says Grantham. “We got some teams coming, and [most] people can’t last more than 20 minutes at a time, because of the social side of things. We get people who only play once a year at the tournament, so it needs to be short. It’s more fitting because it’s a structured game, it’s a proper game, but it’s in a shorter time.”
True GRIT isn’t just for adults, however; young players also have a strong and enthusiastic presence at the tournament due to the game’s expansion into Guam’s schools. Grantham says that the sport has more than 200 young women and more than 400 young men playing flag and tackle rugby across the school system. All told, there are 29 junior varsity and varsity teams currently active on Guam.
Indeed, rugby has come a long way on Guam, particularly among female players. “This year we’re finally pleased to say we have girls playing tackle rugby for the first time. You could see [the girls] were ready, and the parents were asking. The parents approached the schools, and the schools approached [the Independent Interscholastic Athletic Association of Guam] to get permission. Now it’s all there.”
Aside from True GRIT and the high school circuit, both old and young members of the GRC also compete internationally in Asia. “The Asian 5 Nations is really the pinnacle of what we do – it’s an Asian rugby union, kind of a sponsored tournament. It’s called the Asian Five Nations because the top five teams play and then we have division I, II, and III. We’re in division three,” says Grantham. “This year we think we have the best chance we ever had of actually winning. We normally come second or third. We’ve never come fourth, and we’ve never come first. So this is our year.”
Grantham optimism comes from his assessment of competing teams, all of which have a similar level of talent thanks to the how well the union is organized. “This year is the first year where we really have teams that are [at] the same level. We’ve got Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Guam. We’ve got 160,000 people and they’ve got 160 million. We’ve played all of them before, and we think this year is our year to go up.”
If they do advance in the tournament, it will likely be due, in no small part, to the fierce determination of Guam’s players. The Asian 5 Nations’ website describes Guam as being known “as ‘the Rock’ for its volcanic base, but it is also a good description of their unyielding style of rugby.”
Grantham proudly acknowledges this reputation. “Our guys are just aggressive, and solid, and they don’t like getting beaten, so they really pull out all the stops to show that, you know, we’ve got 160,000 people, but we’re not just here to make up the numbers. We’re here because we’re competitive.”
“There’s a pride that they have in playing, and they just don’t put up with, ‘oh, you guys shouldn’t be here.’ Don’t say that. Don’t say that to someone from Guam, ‘you don’t belong here.’ Because they’ll remember it and make you pay,” he warns with a laugh.
Grantham emphasizes, though, that Rugby is not just about winning competitions. “[There] are the guys who take it really seriously, but there’s always space for guys who take it a little bit seriously and just want to have a run around,” he says. “We have this really big high school program, and really good international-level group of guys, 20-25 guys, and then there’s this big gap in the middle. And we’re trying to get more people involved in that big gap.”
Getting into rugby isn’t difficult and doesn’t require much equipment; most players use only the requisite mouth guard and soccer cleats, although some also wear helmets and pads if they so choose. And although players should be fit enough to run and tackle, there’s no particular athletic ability required.
“Rugby’s a game for everybody – we have positions that bigger guys can play, positions that little guys can play. It’s a bit like American football, you have positions for whatever size and shape,” Grantham says.
As for finding a club to join, Grantham says all someone needs to do is show up at Wettengel Field. “They just need to come to the rugby field on the weekend, because there are always rugby people there, from now until the end of May there will be rugby people there. Just talk to somebody; rugby is a pretty friendly sort of place. Just introduce yourself and say ‘I want to play.’”
GRC’s veterans, who teach participants how to play safely and respectfully over time, guide newcomers in the etiquette of the sport. “We try and teach the right place [to tackle]. We’ve had broken arms and things, and it just happens like in any sport. Bruises and things, yeah. It’s sport. We try and cut out the people who deliberately try to do some damage.”
Most of all, Grantham says, the GRC focuses on sportsmanship, especially in a game that is so physical, which can cause emotions to run high. “What happens on the field stays on the field when you finish a game. You’re all friends. It’s a game – afterwards everyone [remains] friends. You play hard, and you win or you lose, and if you lose, you come back next time. That’s the main thing that we try to instill.”
That sense of openness is especially strong in Guam, because of the independent and self-sustaining nature of the rugby club. All of the events – local and international – are planned and paid for from within the rugby club, and Wettengel Field was built and continues to be maintained by club members. Grantham says that the result of all of the members’ hard work is a strong sense of community.
“It’s amazing how friendly you can become with somebody when you walk down the field picking up rocks into buckets, six of you walking side-by-side picking up rocks,” he says. “Whether you like them or not, you spend a lot of time with them, and you just bond. [Just being] happy and respectful, respecting the referees and the other teams. That’s it, that’s what we are.”