When players give rugby a `try,' they do it together

Fellowship: Rugby is catching on at three area schools. Similar to football, it has its differences: Players compete without pads and `everyone gets to share in the glory.'

High Schools

April 28, 2002|By Nick Brownlee | Nick Brownlee,SUN STAFF

For Calvert Hall junior Mac Sumner, getting cut from the school's lacrosse team was a blessing in disguise.

Instead of spending the spring season athletically idle, Sumner, who plays defensive back on the football team, has taken up Calvert Hall's newest team sport, rugby.

"Rugby was my backup, but it's 10 times more fun than lacrosse," Sumner said. "You get a brotherhood with every guy like you've never gotten before. It's so much fun."

One year after Loyola began the area's first high school affiliated rugby team, John Carroll and Calvert Hall have followed suit, offering the sport that has a reputation for fierce on-field play that inspires an equally spirited camaraderie among its participants off it.

Despite having little knowledge of the game, athletes are drawn to the sport for a variety of reasons. For Loyola sophomore Drew Stout, a lineman on the school's football team, it was the opportunity to score.

"My favorite thing about rugby is that everybody can score, not like in football where the backs or receivers score," Stout said. "It's a fundamental team sport in which everyone gets to share in the glory."

Ben Pierce, a junior at John Carroll, liked the unique athletic experience that rugby offers.

"It's different than all other sports, and it's just fun to try something new," Pierce said. "Plus it's the first year, and everyone knew that they were going to have the same background. It's not like anyone is a lot better than anyone else."

The focus of the coaches at John Carroll, Loyola and Calvert Hall is to provide skill development and fun. Teams play between eight and 10 games a season, and practices are held two or three times a week.

"The learning curve in rugby is six to 10 games, so you really need a full season before you start to get a feel for the game," said Bob Schlichtig, a Jesuit seminarian who coaches the Loyola squad. "But most of our kids have taken to it like nothing and just understood it."

Turnout has been very good, prompting all three schools to form two teams apiece. Roughly 160 students are participating among the three schools.

Calvert Hall, Loyola and John Carroll are members of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association, but the MIAA does not sanction the sport. Each team is a member of the Potomac Rugby Union, which serves as the governing body for all sanctioned rugby leagues in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Besides facing each other once or twice during the spring season, Calvert Hall, Loyola and John Carroll play scholastic teams from Washington as well as club teams from Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Carroll counties.

While rugby has an almost religious status in Europe and countries such as Australia and South Africa, for American audiences raised on baseball and basketball, following a rugby match can be a confusing endeavor.

The object of rugby is similar to that of its American cousin, football. A team of 15 players attempts to score points in an end zone after passing the ball backward or kicking the ball down a field measuring 110 yards by 75 yards. Rugby's answer to the touchdown is called a "try," worth five points, followed by a conversion kick, worth two points.

While working the ball toward the end zone, the attacking team is allowed to advance the ball forward by running or kicking, while the defending team impedes the progress of the attacking team by attempting to tackle the ball carrier below the shoulders. Play is continuous like soccer, and at no time can a player advance the ball forward by hand or block for a teammate carrying the ball.

Penalties result in a scrum, a maneuver featuring two lines of opposing players locking together in a large huddle. The ball is placed in the midst of the group's feet as the players attempt to push the opposing side away from the ball so that the ball can be picked up and play restarted.

Though the sport can be violent, the mandatory equipment is minimal. Players are only required to wear spiked shoes and a mouthpiece. Bumps, bruises and bloody noses are part of the game.

The contact caused some strong initial reactions from players' parents.

"I was scared," said Laurie Thompson, whose son, John, is a junior back for Loyola.

"Andrew's verbal description of the game was horrifying," said Lorraine Kelley, whose son Andrew plays for Calvert Hall.

But like a lot of parents, Kelley quickly became a fan.

"When I came out to the first game, I actually brought something to sit on," she said. "But I was standing the whole time. It was just so exciting."

There is a dedication to sportsmanship and fair play that sets rugby apart from many other American sports. It is this aura of goodwill and camaraderie that Calvert Hall coach Tom Hinkel refers to as "the spirit of the game."

"Usually you slap hands with the other team, and that's it," said Hinkel, whose team plays host to John Carroll on Friday. "John Carroll had us up after our game [in March] and had a spaghetti dinner for us. After all our home games, we're going to come back to our school and have a cookout for the teams.

"I'm not sure where it started, but it's just a respect for the other guy who is out there playing and practicing as hard as you are," Hinkel added. "Just getting together with them after the game lightens it up."

Hinkel's sentiments were echoed by Paul Barker, a native New Zealander who serves as John Carroll's principal and head rugby coach.

"I think sports in general can take a lesson from rugby," Barker said. "Yeah, you want to go out there and beat the other guy and beat them bad in the game, but afterward it's what sports are all about -- the fellowship. It's a deep part of rugby culture all over the world and just as much here as anywhere."

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