In America's sports landscape, rugby isn't always the first sport that comes to mind, but it is a sport with a history in the United States and a bright future.
After being brought over from England in the 1870s, the United States won gold in rugby in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics, before experiencing a decline in interest, except in rugby hotbeds like St. Louis, San Francisco and New York.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the sport began to grow again, with the formation of what today is USA Rugby in 1975 and a steady increase in both interest and participation. Currently, there are more than 115,000 active members and 2,600 clubs involved in USA Rugby.
The resurgence of the sport in the 70s coincides with its history in Montgomery County and neighboring Macoupin County, the home of the Macoupin County Rugby Club. With athletes from Hillsboro, Carlinville and all points in between, the Mercenaries were a fixture in the St. Louis rugby scene before disbanding.
Now another group with ties to the area has picked up the Mercenary moniker in an effort to grow the sport that they love.
"I'm trying to grow the sport more. I'm trying to get more people to see it and become part of it," said Lyle Polus, a Hillsboro native and member of the Mercenaries Rugby Club. " There are all these teams in St. Louis, then a few spread out in Illinois, then there are a bunch in Chicago. I would love to see more teams in the area. Spread it out a little. It's a great sport."
Polus' interest in rugby stems from his stepfather, who played for the original Macoupin County Mercenaries. That connection led to another one, with fellow second generation Mercenary Jake Petri, and helped form the building blocks of what the club is today.
"We had met randomly in college and found out that our dads had played together," Polus said of Petri. "(In 2015,) we got the phone call that Doug (Gonzalez, of Hillsboro) was going to restart the team down in the Edwardsville area, in Maryville, and we said let's go to a practice."
The birth of the new Mercenaries was hardly a simple one.
" We showed up the first night of practice and no one was there. The second night, there were three of us, and Jake and I were two of them," Polus said. "We've been on the team since then and now there are 30 or so guys registered. A lot has grown and we've pulled a lot of people in. I love it."
In addition to Polus and Petri, who grew up in Carlinville, but coached wrestling in Hillsboro up until this year, the club also has another Hillsboro connection in former Topper Gavin Twitty, who wrestled under Petri and also played football.
Polus said the connection between rugby and Twitty's previous athletic endeavors makes him a good fit, especially wrestling.
"There is that physicality of the sport," Polus said of what draws wrestlers to rugby. "There is a lot of action up in your face and the wrestlers like to be a part of that."
While football may seem even more closely connected with rugby, Polus said there is a learning curve.
"You have to relearn how to tackle," Polus said. "You don't realize that you throw your body a lot more in football."
In the laws of rugby, tackles above the shoulder are illegal and tacklers have to attempt to wrap their arms around the player being tackled. It's illegal to push, shoulder-charge or trip a player and if your opponent jumps into the air for a ball, he's off limits until he lands.
All of these aspects are meant to keep players safe or as reasonably safe as you can be in a contact sport that doesn't use pads. The physicality of the sport both attracts and repels players though. Those who miss the contact of their high school or college days can fill that urge with rugby, while others may shy away in fear of injury.
Polus said the lack of protective gear can actually make the sport less dangerous than say, football, and makes players think more about their tackling technique.
"Everybody says 'Oh, you're not wearing pads, isn't that going to hurt?' You have to remember that it's going to hurt them, but it's going to hurt me too," he said. "So I have to work to make sure that I'm not trying to hurt myself."
Regardless of how physical the game gets, there is always a camaraderie with the players on both sides of the pitch. It's standard protocol for teams to get together after a match for a social, to swap stories, grab a bite to eat and maybe have a drink or two. It's like Las Vegas, but with tackling; what happens on the pitch, stays there.
Ultimately the connection between players is what made Polus want to bring rugby back to his hometown, where the Mercenaries hosted Mercfest, a six-team tournament on Saturday, Oct. 27, at the Hillsboro Sports Complex. Teams from Springfield, Belleville, Champaign, St. Louis and Cape Girardeau, MO, duked it out for six or so hours, then headed to Lemo's Sports Tap for the post-tourney social.
Interspersed with the current ruggers were members of the old guard, another reason Polus hopes to keep the tournament growing and close to the Mercenaries original stomping grounds.
"All of these other teams have guys that have been around the club for 40 or 50 years," Polus said. "I've tried to bring something back to make the old boys part of it. It just helps with the camaraderie."
USA Rugby touts that their sport is the fastest-growing sport in the United States, with Nielsen research indicating that more than 33 million people are either interested or very interested in rugby. While it may not be ready to supplant football or basketball in terms of popularity just yet, the Mercenaries are hoping that rugby can become the fastest-growing sport in the Montgomery County area as well.
October 27 at Hillsboro
Mercfest Rugby Tournament
At Hillsboro Sports Complex
Pitch 1: Belleville Rowdies 31, Mercenaries 24; Kohlfield Scorpions 55, Belleville Rowdies 7; Mercenaries 27, Kohlfield Scorpions 26.
Pitch 2: Springfield Celts 67, St. Louis Royals 5; Springfield Celts 92, Champaign County Flatlanders 0.
1st Place: Springfield Celts def. Kohlfield Scorpions.
3rd Place: Royals/Flatlanders def. Mercenaries.