U.S. rugby team plays to Zimbabwe fans

September 15, 1991|By Jeff Fletcher

Rugby in the United States is just about as popular as, say, polka music. Outside of a small, devoted group of followers, it is ++ more a curiosity than anything else.

That's one of the reasons why a trip to play in Zimbabwe was so special for three local players.

"When you play over here in America, you have people hollering on the sidelines telling you what to do, but they don't really know what they're talking about," said Towson's Alec Klinghoffer, who, along with Chris Schmidt of Baltimore and John Malcolm of Clarksville, was a member of USA Rugby East Squad that played five games in the African country last month.

"Over there, they are educated crowds and they know what you're doing wrong."

Klinghoffer, Malcolm and Schmidt normally play for the Baltimore-based Chesapeake Rugby Club.

The Chesapeake club, which competes in the seven-team Potomac Rugby Union, is representative of rugby in the United States -- played for fun and played by adults.

Only a few high schools offer rugby. Americans, for the most part, don't start playing the sport until college, if then.

But in the rest of the world . . .

"I watched a mini-game with 8-year-olds when I was there [in Zimbabwe]," said Malcolm. "It's like pee wee football over here. While our top athletes go to basketball or football, theirs go to rugby.

"If you play for the national team over there, you can be set for life. They don't make that much playing but they are helped in other ways. They get time off from their jobs just to train."

Malcolm, 29, Schmidt, 30, and Klinghoffer, 24, were chosen by members of the ruling bodies of the eastern rugby clubs to be on the team that traveled to Africa.

They won one of the five matches played against the Zimbabwe national team.

"There were about 15,000 to 20,000 people there for the games," said Schmidt, "and that was nice. It was really great having first-class facilities. It's always a thrill playing in a situation where you're recognized for your athleticism."

Schmidt said he has hopes rugby will someday grow to that size and popularity in the United States.

"It's kind of in its embryonic stage now," he said. "Rugby started to grow here in the mid-1970s as sort of [a] counter-culture thing. Now it's just a matter of getting this generation of players into it at the junior high and high school levels."

Virtually all the members of the Chesapeake club, who range from their early 20s to early 30s, started playing in college, Schmidt said.

"There are 10 to 12 hard-core players and then other people who love to play and train, but when push comes to shove, they would rather do something else," Klinghoffer said. "I think 99 percent of the clubs in America are like that.

"The big thing is it [rugby] is a good way to funnel our athletic needs. I still like to play sports. And rugby's a little more exciting that softball."

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