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
  • Dick Wolak

    Any info available on how the Ice Blacks do against the Americans in basketball?

  • JIm

    I know us Rugby players are hard but performing crunching tackles on the ice – WHAT?

    Like to see the giants that play this game…

  • JimmyCracksCorn

    Whaddaya use fer studs…square nails?

  • Robin Datta

    As they say, rugby players eat their dead.

  • Joanna Cake

    I had no idea that Americans even knew what rugby was so Im not surprise that the All Blacks keep winning. I think they play from the moment they can crawl :) Are there any pics so we can see what they actually wear to play?

  • Anthony David

    Inspiring feature.

    Hey Joanna, did you know the US Rugby 7s team made the grand final of the latest tournament in Adelaide, South Australia?

  • Joanna Cake

    I did not! Will they be in the next World Cup?

  • Anthony David

    Yes. They qualified and will play in Pool C.

  • Parkylondon

    What an awesome story. As an ex-Rugby player myself, I know what it’s like to be on the right- and wrong- side of a whitewash. To keep coming back for more after nearly 30 years is quite something.

    As for the Kiwi’s needing to practice – it just goes to show how far the Septics* have come. Well done USA.


    * I nearly hit Submit without even realising I had used this term. “Septics” is a modern Cockney Rhyming Slang word for Americans. Septic Tank – Yank.. Sorry.

    I’ll get me coat.

    PS I am not mad. Just suffering the after effects…

  • Hannah

    They also voted women and men sevens rugby into the 2016 summer Olympics!

  • Franco

    God Bless W.W. Ellis and the town of Rugby, England

  • Martin


    7s in the Olympics?! That’s not a proper game of Rugby and neither is that League rubbish.

    Why not play 15s and showcase the greatest football game on earth??

  • My Dinner With Andre The Giant

    Because a 12-team 15s tournament couldn’t be practically played over a two week period, whereas a 7s tournament can be played in 2-3 days. Also, there are a lot more teams that could threaten to medal in 7s than in 15s, and a lot more that could develop to that level reasonably quickly.

  • Alexandre


    The first picture of this article is awesome ! Is it available somewhere in high resolution ? I would juste use it as wallpaper, nothing more…



  • Jeremy From Seattle

    Apparently I should figure out a way to work down there to help the US team! That would be tons of fun.

  • Annie Rosenkranz

    Hayden Harrison was not voted MVP…but played a great game nonetheless and is a great guy. America dominated the first half and have continued to offer an extremely competitive game for the Kiwis who arrive on the Ice with a team full of men and women who have a lifetime of rugby experience. For photos, check out Mount Terror Rugby Club on Facebook.

  • http://DISCOVER Cdr. Jim Waldron USNR-RET.

    How changed things are on the Ice today! In 1957-57, when I spent sixteen months on the Antarctic Continent, rugby or any other outdoor sports were unimaginable to us. No one thought to bring the ball in any case so games were called for a missing ball.

  • Duncan Baker

    Just love this. In 1962 at (SANAE 3) at Sanae base 1, which we built, as I recall we only had a braai (barbecue) and kicked a soccer ball around at mid-winter. Mind you, after us the team got more adventurous and used to streak naked from one end of the base, now buried, on the OUTSIDE!

  • Anna Dahl

    While sitting in the doctor’s office I found this tidbit in the Discover magazine so I had to log on and check it out. My son has been playing Rugby here in NC since he was in 7th grade. He is now a Junior in High School and we were in Pittsburgh last week for his All-Star game. We LOVE this sport and hope the word keeps spreading. Hang in there US workers-we believe in you. For the record-the All-Blacks are one of my son’s favorite teams!!!

  • Kevin Sullivan

    They say Rugby is the Game Played in Heaven…

    …it seems that it’s played in icy Hell also. God Bless the lot of ya! And, maybe, we American players need to supply a few “research specialists” for next year’s match.

  • otago

    With black being thicker than blood maybe the NZ team should have three “ice specialists ”
    These three will do :-)

  • Father and daughter adventure trip to New Zealand in 2011

    Rugby is in the blood of those Kiwis!

    I can’t wait to get down to New Zealand and experience the 2011 RWC.

    I played rugby on the tidal beaches of the Bay of Fundy and I thought that was cold.

    The photo rocks!

  • Wildbee7

    hey dont tell the finns,they already have experience in ice and snow rugby,might send a team and kick our …well you know whats


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