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Photo Credit: Matt Kalinowski

Two hours into a grueling practice, members of the Boston Maccabi Rugby Club are divided into three groups and ordered to run at 75 to 80 percent of their maximum ability around Newton’s Cold Spring Park. On a course marked by a soccer goal and a giant oak tree, the first loop is 330 yards, the second 220 yards and the last is 110 yards, each group earning a brief rest while the other two are running.  Hands on hips, scowling in the heat, the three packs finish in fast succession, huffing loudly and sweating like mules. Someone calls the players in and they trot back, their voices carrying across the park.

This fall, the Maccabis will embark on their inaugural season in the New England Rugby Football Union, or NERFU, competing with 33 other senior men’s clubs. 

“Can we move away from this puddle?” asks a bearded guy.

“I didn’t realize you were so sensitive,” says a teammate.

“These are real leather,” says the bearded guy, pointing to his cleats. Everyone laughs.

Long considered a niche sport in the U.S., rugby has been added to the 2016 summer Olympics in Brazil and recently raised its profile with a national TV contract. For those who know the sport—or think they do—rugby is a boozy and boorish college weirdness, a sort of alt-frat for oddballs that dematerializes at graduation. But men’s club rugby, especially here in Boston, has become a model for social justice, volunteerism and youth development. It’s poised to become the next hot pastime, with upbeat, irreverent characters and a culture offering a bracing alternative to the corporate sterility of mainstream American sport. Sure, players drink and, occasionally, fight. But if the members of two local clubs are any indicator, these guys should be running our civilization.

A year ago, Alex Goldstein, 28, who played at Brandeis, decided he wanted to start playing rugby again. He also wanted to donate more of his time to public service and become more active in the Jewish community. He then took his three goals and combined them by founding the Maccabis.

“Spare time is hard to come by, and I want to maximize it,” says the square-built Goldstein, who works as the director of Governor Deval Patrick’s political action committee. So he made some phone calls, recruiting players and drafting a club philosophy. About half of his club’s members are Jewish, and the team motto, screened onto their jerseys, is Hebrew: L’sachek, which means, “to play,” and L’sharet, “to serve.”

Some of the Maccabis at Cold Spring Park have significant rugby experience, but many have been drawn from other sports. Shirtless in the dense, humid air, Goldstein announces, “I shaved my chest yesterday, but it’s all back.” Over the ensuing laughter, he asks the other players to introduce themselves. After a few guys speak up, a tall sturdy fellow says, “I’m Brendan, and I’m not Jewish,” to more laughs.

Brendan Ryan, 31, is one of the club’s consistent scorers, though he’s been playing rugby less than a year. He was a wide receiver on the football team at St. Sebastian’s School in Needham, an all-boys’ Catholic school. With his friend Goldstein standing nearby, Ryan notes that during their first few matches, the team would huddle up, bunch their fists and shout, “One, two, three: Jew!” which he says was “a little over the top.”

“We should get a hardcore rabbi as our mascot,” says Ryan.

Goldstein laughs. “That conversation—whether we were going to be exclusively Jewish or not—was over in seconds,” he says. “The answer was, absolutely not. We’re an all-inclusive team.”

In fact, inclusion and tolerance are ingrained not only in this club, but in the very sport. Rugby clubs are like big dysfunctional families, as individuals from vastly different backgrounds are forged into a cohesive unit through playing such an arduous game. As a rugger, no matter your station in life, you’re never a member of a class. You’re just a rugby player, pure and simple.

In that sense, rugby is egalitarian, transcending education, income and social standing; beyond even race, gender and religion. Ask any rugger, and he or she will tell you that, amidst the hurly-burly of the game, other players’ characteristics vanish. All that matters is the color of your jersey.

“In rugby, you have to recognize the worth of every person on the pitch, or you’ll lose,” Goldstein says.

Practicing over at Moakley Park in Southie, Boston Ironsides looks like any other rugby club: black guys, white guys; tall and lanky; short and powerful; some quick, shifty types; a few obvious weightlifters; a contingent of lumpy, bearded men.

A former college hurdler, Nick Limerick, 33, has been playing rugby for three years. Formerly Ironsides’ president, Limerick now serves as treasurer for I.G.R.A.B., the International Gay Rugby Association and Board. Forty-two rugby clubs on three continents belong to I.G.R.A.B., which is dedicated to the international advancement of gay and inclusive rugby. In fact, although the club is gay, some 25 percent of the Ironsides are straight Citing rugby’s potential as a “vehicle for social change,” Limerick says he took up the sport because of its famous camaraderie. “You can identify with (opposing players) because you’re going through the same experience,” he says.

His teammate, Izzy Berdan, agrees. “The Maccabis have their religious subset, and we have ‘the people that we sleep with’ subset, but when you go onto the rugby pitch, that all disappears,” says Berdan, 34, who’s been playing for the Ironsides since 2005.

Growing up in Alice, Texas, Berdan was goalie on his high-school soccer team but felt pigeonholed as “the big gay kid.” Now 6' 3" and 303 pounds, Berdan has found a home in the Ironsides scrum, and in the rugby world at large.

In a game, “you’re committed to throwing your body around, so when you’re looking at the other team, you put yourself on the same plane,” says Berdan, creative director for the Aquitaine restaurant group. “I don’t think people start to judge other people until they lose respect for them. When I look at a bunch of ruggers, I know we’ve all gone through the same things. I have respect for everyone on that field.”

By playing in NERFU, a “straight” rugby union, Limerick says, “We’re not sequestered in a ‘league of our own.’” Additionally, the club has performed community service by having gay and straight members visit schools to talk about gay athletes and bullying.

“It’s central to the growth of the sport that clubs make contributions to their communities, on the field and off,” says Goldstein.

To that end, on July 7, during a game between the Red Sox and Yankees at Fenway Park, Maccabi players sold raffle tickets to benefit the Red Sox Foundation, which runs several programs for inner city kids and donates more than $7 million annually to other nonprofit organizations. Volunteer groups average $8,000 in raffle ticket sales at each Red Sox home game, according to Justin Prettyman, senior program manager for the foundation. Wearing their team jerseys and advancing through the crowd “with the attitude that they wouldn’t be deterred,” the Maccabis raised $11,800. 

“They were energetic and naturally competitive,” he adds. “And who can say no to a cauliflower ear?”  This was the foundation’s first experience with a rugby club and Prettyman says he was impressed with the Maccabis’ “go-getter attitude.”

Rugby is quickly becoming “part of the public conversation,” agrees Bill Good, 63, president of the Massachusetts Youth Rugby Organization. This year, 1,200 kids are playing youth rugby in the Commonwealth, up from three or four hundred a few years ago, Good says. “At the high school and college levels, we’re asking our kids to help coach at the youth level, and tutor the youth (academically) on other days. The service piece is part of the culture of the game.”

Rugby is “the most democratic game in the world,” says Good. “It doesn’t matter what you do ‘outside.’ When you step on the field, everyone’s equal. And the guys who play at the highest level have respect for those at the lower levels. ”

As for actually banging heads on the pitch, this year, the Ironsides will play the Maccabis on Saturday, Oct. 13 at Moakley Park. Maccabis player Mark Baglin, 50, who grew up in Birmingham, England, has dubbed this first match between the clubs “the Bigotry Bowl,” while Brendan Ryan prefers “the Stereotype Bowl.”

“The gays versus the Jews—that’s the game everyone wants to see,” laughs Goldstein.

“By and large, we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” says Limerick.

They do, however, take pride in their results. Last June, the Ironsides went 4-2 playing in the biannual Mark Kendall Bingham Memorial Tournament in Manchester, England. Named for a gay rugby player who helped overpower the terrorists on United Flight 93 on 9/11, the tournament featured 38 international gay-inclusive teams, including clubs from rugby powerhouses Australia, Ireland and England. In May, the Maccabis made the finals of NERFU’s annual division four tournament in Newport, R.I., losing to Cape Cod RFC 16-14 in sudden death.

Relative upstarts in NERFU, the Maccabis and Ironsides are looking forward to their match. “It’s like one of those 800-pound gorillas,” says Ironsides’ president Wiremu Kiwi’au-diaz, 35, who grew up playing rugby in Perth, Australia. “Nobody wants to lose to the quote-unquote ‘gay’ team.”

No matter the outcome, the two clubs will meet afterwards at the Alley, a gay bar near Government Center. But for one night, at least, it’ll simply be a rugby bar.

Jay Atkinson is the author of seven books, including Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man, which was published in April. He teaches writing at Boston University.