Rugby’s Six Nations Comes to Town

Rugby - fans 2Ian DuncanMembers of the Village Lions take refreshment.

Just in case it has escaped your attention, we are deep into rugby’s Six Nations tournament, an annual contest fought out by England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales. No fancy ads, no halftime shows, just 30 burly, unhelmeted Europeans butting heads every weekend until March 19.

Even though the sport’s popularity with Americans has grown steadily in the last few years, for me – an Englishman new to the neighborhood – finding somewhere to watch the games took some sleuthing. The time difference with Europe, where the games take place at a more hangover-friendly hour in the afternoon, only makes things more difficult.

Luckily, on Google, I turned up Bret Costain, president of the Village Lions rugby club, and found that I wouldn’t have to go far. His friend and clubmate, Peter Cavanaugh, shows the games in full-HD, of course, on a screen above the smooth, pale wood bar at Dorian Gray, a saloon on East Fourth Street between Avenues A and B, which he opened on New Year’s Eve.

On Saturday, at the ungodly hour of 9:30 a.m., the earliest I’ve been up on a weekend since coming to New York, I walked through deserted East Village streets to join members of the club and Mr. Cavanaugh as Wales routed Scotland 24-6 in its first victory after eight straight losses.

Members of the Lions lined the bar, a mixture half-American, a quarter ex-pat European and a quarter ex-pat Australian. Mr. Cavanaugh himself is Irish-American. Twelve club members were there in all, including a member of the Lion’s women’s team named Rosie Rough – “For real?,” I asked, and she said the name is actually German and you pronounce it “Roe.”

The bar was hardly heaving, but the crowd was making noise in the way only sports fans can do. “Ruck!” Ms. Rough yelled. (A ruck is a messy maneuver to drive off the opposition and liberate a ball that has gone to ground.) “Where’s the support?”

Mr. Cavanaugh looked tired on Saturday. Well actually, he looked exhausted. He had closed at 4:30 a.m. that morning and was back at work three and a half hours later to show a soccer match broadcast from Old Trafford between local rivals Manchester United and Manchester City. When I got there, he was lying on a bench napping under a blanket before his fellow Village Lions started filing in for the start of the rugby match at noon.

Mr. Cavanaugh plans to show as many Six Nations games as he can, serving up full Irish breakfasts – black pudding, white pudding, sausages, bacon and baked beans – before the matches start. He will be in the kitchen himself because his backup chef is, I kid you not, a moonlighting priest who has to lead Mass on Saturday mornings.

Nix Edmund was one of the few Americans at the bar not directly linked to the Village Lions. He gave me his view of rugby. “I’ll watch it,” he said, “but I won’t know when anyone’s scored until they put it up on the screen.”

Keeping track of the action can tax even long-time fans. Although rugby’s rules are similar to football’s, the games are less structured. In those rucks bodies rapidly pile up, with the players shoving one another back and forth. It takes a trained eye to spot the ball when it pops out and a player makes a fresh run.

Over a week ago, when I started my search, I popped into Dorian Gray just after its regular opening time at 4 p.m. Mr. Cavanaugh was at the bar with his father and a brewery rep, mulling choices. Over a glass of strong Belgian Duvel ale, he recalled the early days of Village rugby-watching.

In the 1980’s, cable channels didn’t carry the sport, so the Irish bars would persuade Aer Lingus pilots and stewards to bring over tapes of the games. “You couldn’t do it any other way,” Mr. Cavanaugh said.

Now, it’s much easier. BBC America carries many games and NBC has secured the rights to this year’s Rugby World Cup, which runs from Sept. 9 to Oct. 23.

For Mr. Cavanaugh, who is 44, bringing rugby to the East Village was an obvious step. He was born in New York when his Irish father’s engineering firm was installing concrete at the Juilliard School. After a spell in St. Martin – more concrete, this time for cruise liners – the family returned to Ireland and the young Mr. Cavanaugh finished high school in Dublin.

Ireland was struggling economically in the 1980’s and Mr. Cavanaugh, leaning on his dual citizenship, came to the United States to attend college. He played rugby for Northern Arizona University and spent his summers working for his uncle, who owned the Red Lion on Bleecker Street where the Village Lions was founded in 1989.

Next weekend is a break in the tournament, but on February 26, Italy will play Wales and England will play France. That Sunday, Scotland will take on Ireland. Some of the Village’s soccer bars are also gearing up to show rugby and BBC America has put up a full list of venues on Foursquare, so it won’t take an epic quest like mine each week to find somewhere to enjoy the games.