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Thursday, April 25 Living

Martini & a movie film club sees rugby documentary

Some harsh late-winter weather kept the crowd size down at the Palace Theatre screening of “Chasing Great,” but the audience was very enthusiastic about the state premiere of the rugby documentary .

About 40 people came to the screening, co-sponsored by the Danbury venue and Hearst’s Movie & A Martini film club, with about half the crowd made up of members of the city’s MadHatters rugby team (and their friends and family).

The film tells the story of one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, Richie McCaw of New Zealand’s world-champion All Black team. Directors Justin Pemberton and Michelle Walshe follow the team captain during his final season in 2015, and flesh out his story with lots of archival footage.

McCaw is something like the Tom Brady or Derek Jeter of New Zealand, sustaining a high level of playing skill for many years and often frustrating the press with his man-of-few-words persona. McCaw grew up on a farm in a remote part of the country, and in interviews with his family we get to see where his reticence to talk about himself came from. The film is constructed so that even non-rugby fans like myself are drawn into McCaw’s story because his talent on the playing field, and his leadership abilities, become so obvious.

If we had given a prize for the moviegoer who traveled the farthest to see “Chasing Great,” no one would have come close to Ron Schraven, a visiting businessman from Amersfoort, Holland. A lifelong rugby fan, Schraven was thrilled to learn it was being screened in Danbury during the week he was in Connecticut on business. Schraven has been aware of the prominence of the All Black team since his youth when he knew a New Zealand exchange student who lived and breathed the sport.

“I’ve been looking for the movie everywhere since it is not available on DVD,” he said. “I played rugby and now I coach an under-10 team.”

The MadHatters rugby players loved the movie and filled me in on their amateur team that has been together for close to 40 years. They play in the Empire Geographical Union (i.e., league) and have consistently placed in the national championship playoffs. The team is an outgrowth of the rugby program at Western Connecticut State University, drawing on its players and coaches. The team attracts players at all levels. James Kimberly, who used to be a team official and is now “just a player,” told me the MadHatters view their sport as “a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.”

Players wear no padding, and come into physical contact with each other a lot, so their bodies take a real pounding. “It’s the most violent sport in the world,” Kimberly said. “Football is faster, but every play ends. In rugby there are no stoppages; it’s 80-solid minutes of running around.

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“The club has been growing massively since we were in the national finals in 2009 and finished second,” he added. “We’re trying to win the national championship this year.”

The playoffs start in mid-April and the finals are in Colorado in June. The minimum age for the MadHatters is 18 and the oldest player on the team is 52. The team’s coach Bill San Giacomo said “Chasing Great” brought him back to the Palace Theatre for the first time in many years. “I have lots of memories from coming here as a kid,” he said of the venue’s previous life as a multiplex movie theater.

McCaw is a hero to rugby players everywhere, the coach added. “He is probably the best player ever.”

jmeyers@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @joesview