Maggots raise the countercultural stakes of 'a hooligans' game'Four rugby players swirl down a field on the western edge of Missoula, bathed in fresh sweat broken in promising April heat. Every eye in the swarm locks on the ball's hand-to-hand tumble in the middle of the human dynamo.
This drill teaches passing, fast hands, quick darts into open space, chess-like moves made at a full sprint to support an attack. As the quartet nears the end of its run, the last player due a pass lets loose a frantic call for the ball. "MAGGOTS-MAGGOTS-MAGGOTS!" he screams, stopping only when the spheroid pops against his chest.
The Missoula Maggots Rugby Football Club, Montana's most venerable and notorious, is feeling that springtime itch.
By this weekend, they'll have plenty of company. Maggotfest, the annual rugby bacchanalia, is upon us. Men and women with big shoulders and an aggressive idea of fun will flood Garden City this May Day, and woe betide those worthy comrades who aren't ready.
Thirty-six clubs will gather on the fields by Sentinel High School, looking for hard play and a warm welcome. They're pretty much guaranteed both. From humble beginnings, Maggotfest has become one of America's premier celebrations of the sport that's been called "a hooligans' game played by gentlemen."
"We were the first rugby club to form in the state," says Byron Williams, a retired Maggot who now coaches the club. "The Montana Rugby Union has gone from that one club-and of course, it wasn't a union then-to eight clubs.
"The first Maggotfest was basically just for the other Montana clubs. One club from Idaho, I think, and one from Canada came. Now we have 36 teams come each year and we turn away more than that. It's as big as we can handle. The way it's grown was in part because of the growth of the sport in the country, but just as much it's an indication of the strength of the Maggots themselves."
The Maggots, indeed, lead the rugby revolution in Montana. There are eight clubs in the Montana Rugby Union now, and the Missoula women's club Betterside has been on the cutting edge of the game's fastest growing segment since 1976. Maggotfest, which owes its reputation almost as much to its semi-infamous party scene as to the well-regarded competition, is the game's crowning event in these parts.
And in an age when business often overwhelms muscle on the nation's sports pages, Maggotfest's old-fashioned zeal is damned refreshing.
"Only a certain kind of person is going to be attracted to rugby and stick with it over the years," says Williams. "Typically, rugby players are independent thinkers, self-reliant people with a love of camaraderie and contact sports. Rugby is the ultimate team contact sport. If you get enough of those kind of people together, they usually end up having a pretty good time."
Such sentiments make perfect sense. This fast, padless forefather of American football got its start in a moment of rebellion-William Webb Ellis' courageous (or confused) decision to pick up the ball and run during a soccer game in England in 1823. Ellis' brainchild is now firmly established around the globe, but the founder would no doubt love the countercultural aura that hangs around his invention in the USA.
For Sheri Becken of Betterside, that rowdy ambiance is a key reason why women have made their mark in a sport that, initially, seems to be a playground for machismo.
"I definitely thought it was a macho thing before I really get involved," she says. "But the most important thing about rugby, I think, is that it's a sport for individualists. You make your own way in life as a rugger, male or female.
"You can start rugby late and be at the same level as everyone else," she adds. "I think that attracts a lot of women."
Maggotfest's format is typically unconventional. It's not a tournament, it's a party. Every team is guaranteed three matches, two on Saturday and one on Sunday. Pairings are determined by geography-clubs that wouldn't ever meet otherwise are matched-and quality. The clubs compete not for some knock-out championship, but for the 'Fest's two coveted, subjective awards.
There's the prize for Best Play on the Pitch, which goes to the team showing the finest skills in converting tries and goals-scoring plays immediately recognizable as ancestors of football's TDs and FGs.
Becken and Williams both say this trophy is all well and good, but both stress the crucial importance of Maggotfest's other prize, an award that captures the essence of the full-throttle, red-blooded good time.
"The real big one is Most Honored Side," Becken says. "That goes, basically, to the team that has the most fun."
She should know. Betterside won it last year.
Warming up for Maggotfest this week, an unidentified player passes the ball while getting knocked. The annual festival takes place Saturday and Sunday. Photo by Jeff Powers.