When one thinks of rugby players, the mind leaps to burly men, visibly strong, with necks as wide as many people’s thighs. But sophomore Anders Byrnes does not fit into that stereotype. Standing at five feet, 125 pounds, Byrnes tackles players over six feet tall in his CC rugby games.
As the third son in a dynasty of CC Rugby players, Byrnes’ older brothers Seth and Ben acquainted him with the sport of rugby at the beginning of high school. With an eight-year difference between him and his oldest brother, Seth, Byrnes saw Seth play in one of the first rugby games he ever attended.
“When I tried basketball, I was always frustrated that I couldn’t touch the other player…but in rugby, watching [Seth’s] game, it was a lot more, ‘You hit them and try and get them down any way you can as long as you’re not punching them,’” Byrnes said.
Seth brought in the current coaches, and Ben brought his talent and athleticism to the program, validating it as less of a drinking team and more of a legitimate team, according to Anders. Throughout high school Byrnes played wing in soccer, but disliked both the politics of the sport as well as his coach’s prejudice.
“Freshman year in high school, I was trying to get onto the Varsity soccer team, and the coach told me I couldn’t get on because I was too short; not because my skill was bad, not because I wasn’t strong enough, but because I was too short…the coaches actually told my parents that I wouldn’t be playing on the Varsity soccer team until junior year, if that. I ended up being one of the people who almost scored our winning goal in the State finals,” Byrnes said.
After overcoming his coach’s limits, Byrnes knew he didn’t want to play soccer in college, so he started to learn rugby from his brother Ben. Considering Anders’ size, Ben knew that Byrnes would need to know the fundamentals very well in order to play at all.
“[Ben would] just teach me how to throw the ball and tackle correctly, because he knew that if I didn’t have the skill to take someone down, I can’t use my weight or anything like that, so I have to know how to properly tackle just to play the game,” Byrnes said.
A winter start in his freshman year, Byrnes began playing rugby a week into fifth block, learning basic skills to compete with bigger players. Right away he realized that his technique would be much different than that of taller players because of the differing centers of gravity. Though excited about the physical aspect of the sport, he explained it was odd trying to learn to play with his hands, rather than his feet, like in soccer.
“I was really scared to tackle people, and eventually I had to go against the forwards, and there’s this kid named Joe, he’s this huge kid, really bony, it sucks to tackle him…his center of gravity is higher up on his chest. I don’t want to get kneed in the face, so I learned that for someone my size, the best area to tackle isn’t the waist, where most people go…the optimal place for me would be right below the leg,” Byrnes said.
Although Byrnes soon became comfortable with tackling, he needs to be much more intentional in his focus during tackles, he said. Where bigger players can compensate for technique with size, Byrnes needs to be very precise in order to succeed.
“Anders is actually really great in contact. He doesn’t miss tackles, he may not be able to completely level through [and pick someone up]…but he’s always able to at least slow down the person significantly for anyone else to come and tackle, which is a problem… I’m not able to do that sometimes because the person is just so much faster than me,” forward Michal Varga said.
For Byrnes, getting tackled also becomes harder for bigger players in some aspects. With his quickness and shiftiness, Byrnes can change direction quickly and sidestep bigger players’ tackles because of his lower center of gravity. His quickness makes him especially difficult to tackle, according to back Andrew Gwirtsman.
“He’s really fast, and really kind of shifty, and guys kind of cartoonishly kind of swing above him…I have the same issues, too. It’s not just a him thing, it’s just a small guy thing,” Gwirtsman said.
Sometimes, Byrnes does worry about minor injuries such as receiving knees to the face, but such injuries are rare, and he accepts any consequences. His brother Ben, about five feet seven inches, got kneed in the face all the time, and even has a permanently bruised nose, according to Anders. He still goes against bigger forwards like Quintus Drennan, who’s six feet 230 pounds.
“I mean, he’ll go head to head with me, he’ll tackle me…essentially I don’t drive him to the ground, I’ll make contact, and kind of put him to the ground… the smaller people sometimes make the best tackles, because for us bigger guys, we get lazy, and we don’t do perfect wrapping up and everything,” Drennan said.
Though it’s rare to see many rugby players Byrnes’ size, there are still professional-level players that compete with Byrnes’ height, according to Gwirtsman.
Since soccer, Byrnes has battled his height “disadvantage,” and really enjoys playing on the team for both the love of the game and the satisfaction in making tackles, especially seeing the tackled player’s shock and frustration. He’s mostly just quiet and patient with people’s judging, and enjoys playing to show he can do it. Though the team is now in its offseason, games start back up in the spring as CC looks to beat their rival, DU. Meet the team back on the turf soon for more CC rugby action.