Rugby fever spreads

Gaining: Although rugby has not attained the popularity of soccer, it has gained much support in the Baltimore-Washington region -- the second-largest youth rugby area in the nation.

August 06, 1999|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Baseball, basketball and football are fine for some people. But for 8-year-old Scott Trench of Clarksville, only one sport can quench his thirst for excitement: rugby.

"You have the running down the field and the scrumdowns. That's my favorite part," Scott says, referring to a formation that resembles a hockey face-off and involves players standing shoulder-to-shoulder over the ball. "In football, you have longer breaks because of the downs and all."

Despite rugby's image as an excuse for rowdy men to bloody each other, youth rugby for children younger than age 12 is growing as a popular summer activity in the Baltimore-Washington region.

Scott is one of 12 youngsters on the Howard County Hurricanes, the county's only youth rugby club. The Hurricanes squad is one of five in the Potomac Rugby Union Youth League, which has two teams in Anne Arundel County and one team each in Baltimore and Carroll counties.

That makes the Baltimore-Washington corridor the second-largest youth rugby area in the country, said Patrick Walsh, national youth director for USA Rugby and coach of the Andover Apaches in Linthicum.

USA Rugby, the governing body for the sport in this country, has estimated that there are more than 1,450 recreational men's, women's and youth rugby teams in the country. The biggest hotbed for youth rugby is Houston, but the Baltimore-Washington region is close behind, Walsh said.

"Our potential is as big as soccer's," Walsh says. "The majority of these kids have parents who never played rugby before. How many kids are out there whose parents have played rugby?"

History starts with soccer

More than 100 years old, rugby developed as an outgrowth of soccer in England when some schools allowed players to carry the ball, Walsh says. When the sport crossed the Atlantic, Americans played several versions of rugby. One of them became American-style football.

The basic objective in rugby is to touch the ball to the ground after a player carries or kicks it across the opposing goal line. Forward passes are illegal, tagged players must release the ball immediately, and play is nonstop.

The rules of rugby are different for youths and adults. With children, the teams are usually co-ed, and there are seven players from each team on the field.

But the most significant difference is the prohibition on tackling in the youth leagues. Players must tag the ball carrier with two hands below the waist. Tackling results in a penalty.

"That's more for the parents," Hurricanes coach John Goodwyn says of the no-tackling rule. "The kids would love to tackle."

Reputation for danger

But the prohibition hasn't convinced some adults.

"Every time I tell my friends that my son is playing rugby, they say, `What? Aren't you afraid that he's going to get hurt?' " says Barry Mehta, whose 10-year-old son, Chetan, plays for the Hurricanes. "I say, `No, no more than getting hurt in soccer.' "

Starting from scratch

Like the Hurricanes, some of the youth rugby teams are aided by county recreation and parks departments. Goodwyn, who played rugby at the University of Alabama and is a member of Rocky Gorge Rugby Club, says the county agency placed notices in elementary and middle school newsletters to attract players.

The first few practices centered on teaching the rules of the game to the children, many of whom are familiar with football.

"It was hard to remember that we could only pass backwards," says Greg Moss, 12, of Ellicott City.

The players were fast learners, and the results are astonishing. With three games under their belts, the Hurricanes are undefeated and are likely to be a heavy favorite in the league championship tournament Aug. 14.

The squad is led by 12-year-old Chris Paye of Jessup, who has scored 19 tries, or touchdowns.

"I thought [rugby] was going to be like football," Chris says. "What makes it so great is the exercise and running."

Goodwyn is quick to point out that rugby hones the players' thinking skills because they have to make almost instantaneous decisions based on the defense.

Josh Halbert, 12, of Ellicott City says he has learned to trust in his teammates to win the game. He scoffs at concerns about injuries: "If you can't stand the pain, don't play."

Rugby anyone?

Information: John Goodwyn, 410-740-5829, or e-mail him at jgoodwyn@randinteractive.com.

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