Planet Earth

How Antarctica's Scientists Chill Out: With a Rugby Match on the Ice

DiscoblogBy Eliza StricklandMar 23, 2010 12:10 PM

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At the foot of an active volcano 900 miles from the South Pole, Tom Leard leads a fearless band of men and women over a battlefield of frozen sea, beneath a relentless sun. Ash billows out from the peak behind them as they approach their enemies, who stand staggered across the barren stretch of ice, clad in black from head to toe.

"Don't let them in your heads," Leard tells his motley crew of carpenters, engineers, and service workers. "We're the underdogs, but if we support each other, we can win."

Here, on a January day in Antarctica's frozen McMurdo Sound, Leard and company have come for the latest installment of a decades-long tradition: A rugby match, played between the American and New Zealand research bases, on a field of sea ice 10 feet thick.

Just a few miles away, scientists lead some of the world’s most exotic research projects, taking advantage of the extreme conditions on Earth’s coldest, driest and iciest continent. After a long week studying cold-adapted bacteria or the diving physiology of elephant seals, the scientists and staff take Sunday off to relax. But this is no ordinary Sunday.

Today’s match is the 26th in the series—which New Zealand leads, 25-0. Zero is also the number of 'tries'—rugby's equivalent of touchdowns—the Americans have scored in the history of the rivalry, which is the southernmost rugby game in the world.

Nearby McMurdo Station, operated by the United States, is home to over 1,000 summertime residents, a few dozen of whom have donned red, white and blue uniforms in support of their country. McMurdo is the largest station on the continent, far larger than neighboring Scott Base, which houses fewer than 100 New Zealanders—but that doesn't stop New Zealand from fielding a winning team year after year.

Text and photos by Chaz Firestone. Click through for more photos and the rest of the story.

New Zealand's dark uniforms have earned their national rugby team the moniker "All Blacks." But here in frosty Antarctica, the Scott Base players prefer to call themselves the "Ice Blacks."

Like the national team, the Ice Blacks begin the match with a traditional posture dance known as the "haka." In a staggered formation near the middle of the field, the players slap their thighs and pound their chests, yelling wildly in the native tongue of the Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand.

The haka is loud and impressive, but while it is meant to intimidate, today's haka seems to have the opposite effect on the Americans.

"I've been pumped for this for months," says Leard, a 29-year-old carpenter from Waltham, Massachusetts. "It's cool to have the haka done to you."

Preparation for the match began months earlier, when McMurdo's summer shift began to arrive near the end of August. Days in Antarctica are a little unusual. The sun never sets in the warmer months—which last from September to February in the southern hemisphere—and the entire continent is plunged in darkness in winter, which prevents flights to and from the ice.

Rugby practice for the Americans began in mid-October, with weekly Sunday drills. "Half our guys didn't know how to play the game," Leard says. "They're used to high school football, used to forward passes, which aren't allowed in rugby."

Legend holds that the New Zealanders are so highly skilled that they don't need to practice in advance of the match. But in recent years, the Americans have managed to put some points on the board by scoring a few "penalty goals"—free kicks worth three points each—motivating the New Zealand team to prepare just a little.

"Anything worse than a blanking is an embarrassment," says Albert Weethling, a 49-year-old water engineer who is New Zealand's captain. "We've done very well historically."

To build the field, 32-year-old fleet operations worker Chris Evans dragged a plow across a flat stretch of sea ice, compressing the snow into a firm but springy layer. "It's good enough to run on, but soft enough to fall," Evans says. The goal posts were fabricated a few years ago, and have remained in good enough condition for this year's game.

All of the preparation has led to today's big match. Over 200 spectators stand on the sidelines, wearing heavy winter coats and sunscreen, on account of the fierce sun overhead and the thin Antarctic ozone layer. "Rugby 101" pamphlets have been distributed to the American fans, explaining the rules of the game.

A whistle blows after the haka, and the game begins. Months of practice have given the American squad an advantage, and they surprise the Ice Blacks with aggressive play in an evenly matched first half.

The first legitimate scoring chance comes off the foot of American Brandon Friese, who rings a penalty kick off the crossbar. The missed kick, which would have given the United States its first lead in the 26-year history of the rivalry, hurts double for Friese—he hit the crossbar last year, too.

"You should sign your name on it!" yells a heckler. "The Brandon Friese Memorial Crossbar!"

Moments later, New Zealander Lucas Baldwin breaks a tackle and reaches the end zone, giving his country a slim 5-0 lead at halftime.

Julie Patterson, 43, is one of the few women on the field, playing the position of "hooker" for New Zealand. She thinks her team could have performed better in the first half. "We were slow to warm up," she says. "But then we finally started playing rugby."

Patterson is right. New Zealand comes out on fire in the second half, scoring three unanswered tries and a drop goal. They are led by Hayden Harrison, a 23-year-old engineer from Wellington, N.Z, who scores two tries in a row and earns Most Valuable Player honors for his team.

The Kiwi onslaught is too much for the Americans, who fail to put any points on the board, and lose, 23-0.

For the Ice Blacks, the prize is the Ross Island cup, which they've taken home 26 years in a row. But the Americans earn valuable experience and motivation to come back next year.

"We played with a lot of heart," Evans says. "We had a great opponent."

But for Annie Rosenkrantz, a 24-year-old supply worker from St. Louis, Missouri, and "flanker" for the Americans, the day was won even if the game was not.

"The fact that the Kiwis have to practice now shows how far we've come."

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