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One Saint and Fifteen Sinners

Fifteen dudes, Saint Patrick’s day, two RVs, a Guinness factory, a car accident, kidnapping, girls from New Jersey, sheep, one torn ACL, an unfavorable exchange rate and spontaneous Riverdance. you don’t need to have a Harvard degree to know that is awesome.

A bright red explosion on the monitor in front of me makes me wince. Black smoke billows up from my ship and I drop the controller. The screen says, “LOSER.” Anthony Bangay leans over and whispers in my ear, “Does it bother you that you’re a Ranger and I’ve beaten you in five straight games of Battleship?” After a thoughtful pause, he concludes, “I guess it would be worse if you were a Navy SEAL.”

A few hours and several thousand miles later, we are dragging our bags through the trash-filled streets of Dublin. Brendan Picha gingerly tip-toes his way through colored shards of glass emblazoned with the shattered remnants of the Heineken logo. Bangay speaks, “Someone’s head got smashed here.”

A small café with a placard advertising breakfast and coffee beckons our group away from the dirty streets. Josh Gregg strikes up a conversation with a waitress. Her white teeth flash with laughter. His face is dimpled and his eyes sparkle when he returns to our table. I distrust him.

Thirty seconds later I am staring at a shot of Jameson, my punishment for being a terrible Aer Lingus passenger and for violating certain Rugby Club rules. It is 7 AM. I could be in Cabo.

Thirty minutes later Josh forces an unsuspecting Anson Frericks into a pickup truck with possibly the creepiest man in Dublin. Anson’s face exhibits a balanced mix of bewilderment, betrayal, shock and fear. The creepy guy is our RV rental contact. Riding is necessary. Anson is our sacrificial lamb.

Picking an RV driver is difficult, so we apply the congruence model from first year LEAD.

Here are the facts. First, the RV is huge. Second, it is huge. Third, it is a stick-shift. Fourth, it is a left-handed stick shift. Fifth, the Irish drive on the wrong side of the road.

Kevin O’Boyle is a terrible driver. He doesn’t drive stick. He is right-handed. But he is indirectly Irish! We decide that he is perfect. Our decision will result in the destruction of a random segment of stone wall somewhere between Galway and Dingle in less than 48 hours.

The second RV is piloted by Christoph Schwerdtfeger. Christoph is a veteran of the German autobahns and the eldest member of the group. His eyes play over the group, linger on Bangay, and he grabs the other set of keys.

We are figuratively, but not literally, off to the races. Our huge RV has a whopping 125 horsepower. Give it up for American muscle and GM.

Later that night, an anonymous member of the rugby club, let’s call him Gizmo, informs me, “The gremlin in me is coming out.” I laugh and take his comment at less than face value. Five minutes later he head butts Bangay, who probably deserved it, and is escorted out of the bar. Thankfully, there are more bars that are willing to take our money.

And pretty girls to advertise them! Adopting the logic that the advertisement girl is better than the flyer, two ruggers save a tree, return a proffered flyer, turn themselves into a human rickshaw and carry away a laughing, advertisement girl. From her perch, she leads a singing procession through the cobblestone streets to her employer.

A flock of women surround Matthew Rooney at the next bar. They call him Leonardo – as in Di Caprio. They are from New Jersey. Disaster looms. But, in an unprecedented display of willpower, Matt avoids playing the role of Jack and allows himself to be dragged away from his fawning audience so he can do what he came to Ireland to do: hang out with dudes and drink Guinness.

Matt’s act of selflessness did not set the tone for the trip. Doug Haber threw Christopher McCloskey into the back of a pickup truck for no reason. Brandon Bentley “Sir Double B”, a rugby legend, waltzed over the top of a pile of rugby players wrestling on the concrete, pressing an unnamed rugger’s face into the concrete sidewalk.

I took solace in the fact that our match would be played on soft grass. After all, what’s the worst that could happen when you tackle enormous men without wearing any pads? A concussion, a broken finger, a torn ACL? Uh, yup.

Your HBS rugby club played a team from the University of Central Dublin called Smurfit. Before you dismiss this team, think about what it takes to play on a team called Smurfit. To borrow from Johnny Cash, it’s like naming your boy Sue. They had a chip on their shoulder. They grew up playing rugby – an informal poll put the average starting age at four years old. The same informal poll put the average age at which they first chugged a pint of Guinness at three.

Brian Kaufmann wore padded headgear that buckled under his chin and a tight jersey that clung to his frame. He looked like a discarded extra from the set of Mad Max. Brian watched the Smurfit players run well-organized drills. The ball floated crisply back and forth on their half of the field as they warmed up.

A rugby ball rocketed off the foot of one of our backs and sailed well out of bounds where it nearly took out a group of unsuspecting Irish girls. Our forwards wandered around aimlessly. John Knapp was getting a quick tutorial on rugby from Doug Haber, for he had never played before. Brian whispered, “We look like the bad news bears.”

Tackling is a great equalizer. From the opening kick, the game was rough and hard. Jimmy Joun, Matt Rooney and Anthony Bangay leveled big hits straight out of the gate that put Smurfit back on their heels. Anson Frericks, showing off the skill and dexterity that made him a big time Yale lacrosse player, absolutely trucked one unlucky Smurf who happened to receive the ball at an unlucky angle.

Orchestrating the attack for the backs, Doug Haber displayed the pace and agility that make him a threat to score every time he touches the ball. He would find the in-goal area several times before the day was through. Sir Double B, out on the wing, ran overlaps that nipped away ground.

Our initial drive bode well for our prospects. Brian Kaufmann won several rucks and kept possession for a steadily advancing HBS side. Smurfit yielded all the way inside their five-meter line, and it seemed that HBS would surely draw first blood. Then, disaster.

I am sure that clouds descended on Cambridge at this moment, rays of light beamed down on Palo Alto, and God decided to punish us for letting Anthony Bangay on the team. An errant pass sent the ball skittering across the turf. Smurfit recovered and swung the ball out to the wing where they had numbers. Their winger raced down the sideline untouched and scored a try.

The next possession was a repeat of the first, and even though Kevin O’Boyle played well at fullback and gained ground every time he touched the ball, Smurfit’s kicks were backed by the wind and packed a punch that 15 men who had trained for the match by downing all of the Guinness in Ireland could not match. The score was 30-12 in favor of Smurfit at halftime.

The second half came with a change of stars. With Kevin O’Boyle anchoring the line against the Smurfit attack, Doug Haber took over the game and scored two tries in quick succession. Anthony Bangay drew the attention of his Irish counterparts with his skillful play at the forward position but, try as they might, Smurfit could not contain a renewed HBS attack.

James Hendon, running hard in his first match for HBS, carried well, pacing several big runs. But it was Matt Rooney who nearly had the play of the match. With five minutes left and the score 35-24, a deep HBS kick isolated the Smurfit fullback. After an open-field tackle, yours truly regained possession for HBS, and as the fullback dragged me to the ground, I found Matt wide open next to the pile, and he bounded like a kangaroo into the in-goal area to cut the lead to six for Smurfit after a failed two-point conversion.

On the ensuing drive, Doug Haber made several superb open field tackles to keep Smurfit in check, but they made steady progress into our half. A Smurfit back tried to kick the ball past the line for a try, but Jimmy Joun dove after it and he denied the Smurfit attack. But his defense of the area came at a steep price. A sharp scream signaled a torn ACL.

Playing with a renewed sense of urgency, HBS pushed the ball well inside the twenty-two of Smurfit. The smack of unpadded bodies colliding grew louder as time grew short. The ball lay just three meters short of the Smurfit in-goal area beneath a heap of tangled limbs and grasping hands when the final whistle sounded.

A burly Irish player walked up to me after the game. He smiled and shook my hand, “You knocked me for a loop! I saw stars in the first quarter.” He put his arm around me and punched me in the chest several times.

Anthony Bangay was named “Man of the Match” by our Irish counterparts for his excellent play. Bangay responded to his award with typical grace, “Wha? That’s me!” Yes, Bangay, that was you. Doug Haber’s beard finished a close second in voting. And everybody won at the after-game beer call.

I wish there were some moral to this story, some transcendent theme about bonding in a foreign country or a reflection on our last experience abroad as HBS students and how much things have changed or at least our perception of them. But there are no morals or reason to rugby tour, there is only survival.

As always, we would like to thank our sponsors KPMG, BCG and Global Rescue, as well as Tommy Doyle’s and Harpoon Brewery.

April 4, 2010
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