Rugby's Poet Laureate Reflects On Geese Cuba Tour

Wild Geese USA Over-35s Takes on Team Cuba: You Won’t Believe What Happens Next

By Buzz McClain

 

HAVANA, Cuba, January 2017

 

A lot of this story will feel familiar to rugby players because we did the usual rugby stuff. But this was…different.

For my part, at age 61 and with 36 years of rugby to my credit as a player and a referee, I was the senior-most traveler on the Wild Geese RFC squad, but the others were not too far behind me. And to a man—and woman (we took one woman player and two wives)—we agree that this was the one we will remember.

The one we cannot forget.

The thing about Havana is, everywhere you look, there’s something to see.

The vintage cars, the crumbling buildings, the lively action on the bustling city streets and, not the least, the dark brown wall of flying Cuban rugby players coming at your attacking side like hornets swarming out of a rattled nest. Who are these guys? Where did they come from all of a sudden? Where did they learn to play rugby?

Impressions of a week in Havana are indelible—it is a city unlike any other we have visited—but beyond the rum, the cigars, the fascinating lectures and the single-minded unity of a people created from a military revolution, it was the rugby that was most memorable.

Going into it, who knew what to expect? Neal Henderson, the stalwart who volunteered to put together an over-35 rugby tour of Cuba for the Wild Geese RFC in Washington, D.C., planned the trip with professional tour manager Shelly Malur for more than a year. But only until two days after our Delta flight touched down on the Communist island nation did Henderson know what sort of competition to expect.

As it happens, Team Cuba practices three days a week, two hours a session, coached by the wily veteran Chukin Chao. They have no scheduled games.

Let that sink in.

You are a die-hard rugby player; you train three times a week and you don’t have a guaranteed game on Saturday—ANY Saturday—unless a foreign tour is coming through. So you play the guys on the other side of Havana, again, and again. But now you have a plane-full of American over-35s coming to your island, with three games scheduled.

Hey rugger, are you drooling at the prospect of hitting someone whose name you don’t know?

Yes you are.

And they were.

Henderson put the initial Geese honk out about a year before taking flight for Cuba. He recruited from the bottom of a ruck at the Saranac Tournament (“Hey, want to go to Cuba?” “Sure,” said Sander Budanitsky of New Jersey).

Deposits from committed players came in, fitfully, but eventually 11 players were all-in, two with wives, and, to Henderson’s great chagrin, three of his players were backs, and one of the locks was his wife, Erica Hansen (a veteran rugger, by the way).

Well, as you know, it takes 15 to field a side, ideally seven of them in the backline.

At some point, thanks to Geese member Guillermo Auad, the Yanks teamed up with the Argentina-based Rugby Sin Fronteras—the nonprofit Rugby Without Borders—led by Juan Bautista Segonds, who also plays a mean No. 8 in addition to commanding the attention of any room he steps into.

The Geese were the first American rugby team since President Obama’s December 2014 policy change to tour the Communist nation. This fell right into RWB’s wheelhouse: In the past they’ve arranged and played in games in conflict zones around the world, including an Israeli vs. Palestinian match in Israel.

Along with Bautista and few other RWB members, the Geese also picked up Federico Pucciariello, a former Munster player with cauliflower ears and eight caps for Italy. He’s a Six Nations prop but since there was a preponderance of forwards on the Geese travel side, he played fly-half.

“Today,” he told me with a smile before the first kick off, “I am playing fly-half for the first time. This should be fun.”

Also filling in were several rugby-players-without-a-team Americans stationed at the newly opened U.S. Embassy, including the assistant medical officer, Phil Nelson, who a day after the match gave the Geese a tour and highly informative talk at the embassy. (Tour manager Malur used her embassy connections to recruit the players and set up the unscheduled embassy visit.)

To round out the side, Nelson called in the Marines, which, as you might imagine, came in handy.

For my part, I was the referee for the three games we played in three days.

On the day of the first match, the Geese—still uncertain as to what quality of team they were playing as well as equally uncertain of each other’s names—arrived at the West Havana stadium for a sunny and warm late morning kickoff.

But first, there were interviews to do—NBC and the Associated Press were covering, as well as local media outlets and an impressive bank of professional photographers, all drawn to the prospect of their local team playing Americans.

As the Geese stretched out and warmed up in the late morning sun, it slowly dawned on us: What have we gotten into?

We’re in a stadium. That’s not the typical Geese venue. The Geese’s home field is a privately owned bowl-shaped field of dreams on a farm in Dickerson, Md. A stadium like this one with real concrete bleachers for spectators is not the norm.

Nor the microphone on the sideline. Nor the ceremonial flags carried by two young Cuban women. Nor the National Anthems, nor the speeches by local dignitaries.

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Game day!

As is their somewhat new tradition, the Geese started the match off with a pre-game “honka,” a wildfowl version of the New Zealand All Blacks’ haka. It got the expected laugh.

The first game of the day—there would be two—was highlighted by a spirited first half in which both squads struggled a bit with strategy and jitters. In the end, Cuba’s faster (and no doubt slightly younger) backs found the seams at pace and scored a few long-distance tries for a 30-7 final.

The next match was played an hour later. It was billed as a “symbolic” exhibition match with all the players mixing on two teams in red or blue Rugby Without Borders uniforms. Cubans, Yanks and South Americans played with and against each other in a full-on match of violent collisions that was played in the name of peace, love and understanding.

Fittingly, the match ended in a 10-10 tie, with the final try scored at the hooter and the kick-after “disallowed” by the referee (ahem) in the name of harmony and respect. The gesture was well-accepted and the post-match photographs reflect the genuine respect for each other and the sport. The video of both teams in a symbolic scrum—50 players in matching uniforms locked arm-in-arm—is priceless.

The social—you knew there would be a social—was held at a new, very Capitalist-like harbor-side brewpub in a congenial afternoon of presentations and toasts. I, and everyone who played, including the youth teams that played at the intermission, received medals.

We would return to the brew pub two days later following the third match of the tour, this one strictly between the Geese and their mercenaries versus Team Cuba.

This game—which saw the addition of female Cuban rugby players on the pitch, inspired as they were by Erica Hansen—was the more hard-hitting of the three matches as the Geese tried valiantly to not return home without a victory.

But the Cubans were not having it and those fit and fast (and probably young) backs had their way in a 17-0 match.

On the bus during the 30-minute ride back to the brewpub and entirely sober, Geese scrum half Lee Coogle of Charlottesville, Va., stood in the middle of the bus and started a round of seldom-heard rugby songs.

“The tour may have hit its peak during [NSFW song title],” Coogle says. It certainly was a high point.

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Five days after landing in Havana, the Geese carried their custom duffels—artwork inspired by Cuban artists, as well as the game jerseys and the training tees—to the airport and checked in for the flight home with fresh scrapes on their heads, elbows and knees (the ground had grass, but it was hard grass!).

The scrapes will be long healed before the memories of the week in Cuba have faded, if they ever do.

When asked for favorite moments, Sander Budanitsky fondly recalled the opening ceremonies.

“Pick a sport. In any international, walking out to your flag and having your national anthem played is the most intense and emotional part of the pre-game…The fact that the Cuban's took this encounter seriously gave it a certain gravitas. All of a sudden, we went from playing a touring friendly to representing our country. Just getting a little taste of what that must be like was for me the most memorable part of the tour.”

Kurt Crisman, who joined the Geese from Baltimore Chesapeake RFC’s old boys, said his favorite memory from the games was a Geese’s try against Team Cuba. An errant fly hack sent the ball wide and right into the hands of one of the Marines who was filling in—and playing in his first match.

“He stood there for a second a little befuddled,” Crisman says. “Everyone yelled at him to run, which he did, scoring the Geese’s only try.”

Henderson, who had challenge coins created for the tour (don’t have yours? You’re buying the round), fondly recalls the Kangaroo Court presided over by “Judge” Roger Chaufournier on the bus to the airport for the return flight. (The sentence for your misadventures: an 8 a.m. shot of Cuban rum.)

 “You could see everyone had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed the adventure,” Henderson says. “In the back of my mind, I also knew we had introduced rugby to several people, we had introduced and nurtured international touring and touring traditions while developing wonderful relationships with the Cubans and supporting youth rugby.”

The idea is to leave the place better than you found it, plus, rugby.

The Geese donated a set of jerseys to Team Cuba; each Geese player had two gift bags in their kits to present to their opposite number on game day: They were to fill the bags with hard-to-find (or afford) items in Cuba such as mouth guards, soap, shampoo, sunglasses, tee-shirts and any gear you felt like including.

I left in good care with a young Cuban referee several Potomac Society of Rugby Football Referees jumpers and high-performance tees, a set of Slug 7s touch flags (thanks Rocky Gorge RFC!), several pairs of sunglasses I had laying around, tee shirts and some soap from the hotel. He was thrilled.

So was I.