JONATHAN DYER / The Island Packet
Published Sat, Oct 11, 2008 12:00 AM

Of all places, Garrett Hamilton figured the gym would be the one place sprouting with people fit and ready to join him on the local football team.

But after five years of recruiting, Hamilton has found that even the strongest and most athletic of gym rats shrink when they realize it's not quite the type of football they expected.
"Most people see rugby as a violent sport with a bunch of guys running around and beating each other up," said Hamilton, who took up the sport in 2003. "And yeah, it's a physical sport, but if you're committed and learn the game, it's a lot of fun and you get used to the physical aspect of it."

There are 21 other guys in town who agree with Hamilton and make up the nucleus for the Hilton Head Rugby Gators.

The team begins its 34th season today in Savannah, and while it might seem awkward to scramble Hilton Head's serene reputation with the aggressive play that defines the rugby, this team proves otherwise.

Last season, the Gators clinched the Georgia Union Division III title with a 7-1 record before falling in the first round of the Southeastern playoffs for the second consecutive year.

Now, this conglomeration of attorneys, Marines, pharmacists and bar owners ranging from frames of less than 150 pounds to statures of 6-foot-4 are poised to make a run for the national title.

"A lot of people don't even know we have a team, even though we've done pretty good the last couple seasons," said Hamilton, the Gators' team captain. "The greatest part of rugby is the camaraderie and growing together as a team, and we really emphasize that."

Much of this bonding takes place after games at Murphy's Irish Pub, which has been the team's headquarters since it opened in 2004 and is owned by Paul Murphy, who played for the Gators from 1993-2003.

Here, the team gathers with their opponent as well as friends and family to talk about the game and share their common experiences.

"The after-parties a great time and shows what rugby is all about," Murphy said. "Most people think the sport is a bunch of barbarians running around out there, but we have fun and it takes a lot of thought and strategy to be good at rugby."

The 2008 season will be the Gators' first in 18 seasons without head coach Bob Weir, who died of lung cancer in March. In Weir's honor, the players will wear jerseys with his name embroidered on the sleeve. With one of Weir's first players in Buzzy Sullivan now at the helm, Weir's successful legacy is likely to be continued this season.

"I like our chances of getting past the first round of the playoffs this year," Hamilton said, "and with more support, we can really make rugby a sport that people respect and want to play locally."


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