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

By Eliza Strickland | March 23, 2010 12:10 pm


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.

MORE ABOUT: Antarctica, rugby, sports

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