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Tackling Cancer

By Cory Smith 30th October 2003

News-Leader Staff

Rugby is a tough, physically demanding sport, but a few bruises and an occasional broken bone can't compare to what longtime player Ryan Cuhles faced after being blindsided with a diagnosis of Hodgkin's disease in December 2001.

The Southwest Missouri State sophomore battled six large tumors in his chest, some larger than his heart, with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation.

He couldn't wait to return to the sport with the bruising style of play. He would soon be playing with the Springfield Rugby Football Club, a team that has little recognition but much success.

"(Not playing rugby) was absolutely the worst part of the whole thing," Cuhles said. "I've been an athlete since I was little, and after a certain point, I was relegated to just sitting on the couch in the basement.

"It was so frustrating seeing all the work I had put into my body go to waste."

Cuhles, who played a season of rugby at the University of Missouri before transferring to SMS, said he lost 30 pounds during his hiatus from the sport.

Cuhles was eager to get back on the field after being released from doctor's care last December, but without a team to play for at SMS, he turned to the little-known, but quite successful city team.

In August, Cuhles began playing with the Springfield team, one that has quietly competed since its formation in 1983.

Springfield celebrated its 20th anniversary last June with members of its sister club from Wales, which Springfield has had a relationship with since touring England and Wales in the mid-1980s.

Springfield provided Cuhles with a high-caliber team to play on, boasting a 7-3 record this season after winning the Heart of America D-II Championships each of the past five years, the Western Territorial D-II Championships in 2003, and making the USA Rugby D-II final eight or final 16 every year since 1999.

"Springfield is a far superior team to any I've played with before, including Mizzou," Cuhles said. "I have friends I've played with who are at Purdue that know about Springfield and say how lucky I am to be here."

In fact, Springfield beat the Mizzou club 52-5 this season.

"I'm proud to be part of (the team)," he said. "We have a good group of guys here."

And an eclectic bunch it is.

Standing in contrast to the 5-foot-8, 160-pound Cuhles is SMS student and rugby club member Jon Hartman.

Hartman, a 6-2, 210-pound blonde flanker with the nickname "Swede," was chosen for the USA Rugby developmental tour through New Zealand in August as an All-American and Top-25 college player in the country, even though he plays for Springfield and not SMS.

Hartman said rugby is much more popular in other countries than it is in the United States.

"It's their life," Hartman said. "They eat it and breathe it. They play it from the time they're little because it's the only sport they have.

"Here, we have different seasons (for different sports). There, it's either on-season or off-season."

A great number of people are currently caught up in the Rugby World Cup in Australia, playing until Nov. 22.

The 44-day tournament is host to 20 national teams, including USA Rugby, and is broadcast in more than 205 countries to a potential audience of 4 billion people.

Cuhles said one of the best aspects of the sport is the unique bond rugby players share, regardless of the player's team or even country.

"No matter where you go, if you play rugby, then another player is your brother," Cuhles said. "It's like an elite little club."

Another Springfield player, Jonn Strahl, is a 55-year-old safety coordinator for the city of Springfield.

Strahl has played with the local squad for 10 years, and plans to play as long as he can after recuperating from a shoulder separation suffered in the preseason.

"I get teased when I go into work with a black eye or some stitches," Strahl joked. "They say, 'Oh, Jonn, I see you had a safe weekend.'"

Strahl also said rugby players enjoy a unique kinship. He said 1983 founding members of the club are still active in team business, whether helping with games or with fund-raisers.

"It's a special social atmosphere," Strahl said. "It's very fraternal. It's very close."

Strahl, who first watched a live rugby match in 1966 in Kansas City, thought he would check out the local team after he saw a newspaper advertisement for the squad. He said it wasn't long before he was involved with the team and hooked on the game.

"My wife thought I was crazy," he said.

Strahl estimates the team enjoys a fan base of approximately 200 people per home game, mostly a contingent of family and friends.

Cuhles, who began playing rugby in high school in St. Charles after the other football players began to outgrow him, said that rugby is not as popular with Americans because they are unfamiliar with the game that he calls a "bridge between soccer and American football."

"It's a tough sport in a lot of ways, but you don't have to be a behemoth to play it," Cuhles said.

"It scares a lot of people off. They think it's chaos, but I look out there and see strategy, and understand everything that's going on."

With the likelihood of recurrent cancer and heart disease within the next 15 years due to his battle with Hodgkin's disease, Cuhles is savoring his opportunity to again play the game he loves.

"I'm trying to get all my fun in now," he said.

Springfield wraps up the fall season Saturday when it is host to the St. Louis Bombers at 2 p.m.

The team will begin a spring season in February, which will last until June.

Team secretary Rhett Smillie said the squad is always looking for new members.

"We want to emphasize that all ages and skill levels are welcome," Smillie said.

For more information, refer to the club's Web site at

Directions to the matches can be found at the Web site. Admission to the matches is free.



Rules of rugby

Rugby has two basic variations, rugby union and rugby league. Rugby league is a game that originated from union, but is based on a different set of principles. The Springfield Rugby Club is a union version.

Following are some basic rules of rugby union:

• In rugby, two teams of fifteen players each try to score as many points as possible by carrying, passing and kicking the ball. Since rugby is a precursor to American football, many similarities exist between the two games.

• Rugby is played with an oval ball, shaped much like an American football

• Forward passes are not allowed. Dropping the ball forward also is prohibited and is called a knock-on.

• The ball can only be advanced by running or kicking the ball forward.

• A tackled runner must immediately release the ball; the tackler must immediately release the tackled player.

• Play is continuous; all stoppage of play must be immediately restarted (unless there is an injury).

• A scrum (the formation used in the setplay, a human-shoving formation) restarts play after a forward pass or knock-on. A scrum can also be awarded in other situations.

• A lineout restarts play after the ball travels into touch (out of bounds).

• No blocking, normally all supporting players must stay behind the ball carrier.

• Scoring is similar to American football, except a rugby touchdown is called a try and is worth five points and conversion kicks are worth two points. Successful field goals score three points as do drop kicks from open play.

• A Try is awarded when the ball is carried or kicked across the goal line and downward pressure applied to the ball. A try is worth 5 points.

• 2 points are awarded for a successful conversion kick after a try.

• 3 points are awarded for a successful penalty or drop goal kick.

• After points are scored, the ball is kicked back to the scoring team (except in sevens).

• Laws not rules govern the game; the referee is the sole enforcer of those laws.

• Rugby is played with limited replacements in 40-minute halves.

• The game clock is kept by the referee on the pitch and is stopped only for injury.

• Two additional judges are utilized on each touchline to signal when the ball has left the field of play, and to assist the referee in various capacities.

• A rugby field is called a pitch. The pitch is 100 meters long by 69 meters wide (75 x 110 yards). The sidelines are called touchlines and there are two in-goal areas that are 10 to 22 meters deep with a tryline marking the front and a dead ball line at the back. The goal posts are located on the try line and are 5.6 meters apart with a crossbar set at 3 meters.

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