“Give Blood – Play Rugby” – a bumper sticker testament to a sport whose players take pride in the rough-and-tumble of the game.
But it’s not all brawn and bone, says second-year UB Law student Simon Honig, who learned to love rugby as an undergraduate player at SUNY Geneseo, and now plays with the Buffalo Rugby Club. Honig approaches the game as a scholar, with an endless fascination for its strategy and its uniqueness among contact sports.
Now that immersive approach is paying off in a big way. Maccabi USA has selected him to represent the United States in next year’s World Maccabiah Games in Israel, a major international competition often called the “Jewish Olympics.” Honig is among the first eight players to be named to the U.S. squad. The remaining 22 players will be chosen after the next round of tryouts for the team.
For Honig, the prospect of competing on the world stage is “pretty overwhelming. I only started playing rugby six years ago, and I’ve always felt like a student of the game, and I try to be as good at it mentally as I am physically.”
Honig played several sports growing up in Western New York – soccer, lacrosse, volleyball – but never found the one that really captivated him until his time at Geneseo. Invited by a friend, he joined the school’s club-level rugby team, the Warthogs, and quickly went all in. “I loved it,” he says. “I just took to it really, really well, and I found that this was the one thing outside of school that I wanted to dedicate my time to. I watched a lot of videos and learned the game and the skills it takes.”
For the Buffalo Rugby Club, Honig plays fly-half, a position somewhat akin to a football quarterback. He calls the plays and works to get his teammates into position as they advance the ball. It’s a skill position, one that requires top-notch kicking and ball-handling abilities.
He’s not the biggest guy on the field, Honig readily acknowledges, and that makes the game a little more dangerous. “The classic reputation is a bunch of big guys bashing into each other,” he says. “Most players are big hulking guys, and to a certain extent that’s necessary for safety. Anything can happen. There is often blood. The worst I’ve suffered is a couple of broken fingers, sprains here and there, and I tore a meniscus at one point.”
The opportunity to compete at the World Maccabiah Games came after he played in a couple of invitational tournaments in Las Vegas and, last month, at the U.S. parent organization’s selection combine in Houston. There the hopefuls played a dozen hours of rugby across two days; “it was incredibly grueling,” he reports.
Now the real work begins. Once the team is complete, there will be practices down the road, but for now Honig is committed to a schedule of weight and cardio training – typically four days a week in the gym – and a nutrition program. He has to report his progress monthly. He’s practicing two afternoons a week with the Buffalo Rugby Club and playing weekends, either in Delaware Park or away games that are typically in the New York City area. He’s also an assistant coach for the Canisius High School men’s rugby team, which plays in the spring.
It’s a heavy load for his labor-intensive 2L year, but Honig is making it work – traveling with his laptop on those long drives to New York, for example. His academic interests include real estate law, sports law and intellectual property.
The opportunity, though, should be worth the trouble. The U.S. team won the gold medal at the last Maccabiah Games, in 2017, part of an overall event that attracted more than 10,000 athletes from 80 countries, competing in over 40 sports. Organizers say it’s the third-largest sporting event in the world.
Honig has a friend who was on that gold-medal team. “It’s a commitment like the Olympics, three or four weeks,” Honig says. “But it connects you with your heritage. He said it was a crazy incredible experience.”