Gentler youth rugby is catching on

Growth: A two-hand touch version of the rough-and-tumble tackle sport is becoming more popular with children.


In Howard County

July 06, 2005|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Three multipurpose fields behind the east Columbia library have been a venue for youth soccer, lacrosse and football for years, but all three were busy Saturday morning with children playing a different sport.

It was rugby, but not the rough-and-tumble version occasionally shown on television, where burly men with little in the way of padding to soften the blows knock one another around.

This was a children's version -- two-hand touch, a rules alteration that devotees of the sport say is helping it grow in popularity, slowly, because parents and players know the game is not as rough.

The Howard County Hurricanes and the Ellicott City Express, separate organizations with age-group teams totaling about 130 youngsters, were competing Saturday, along with a club from Bowie.

Potomac league

All the teams play as part of the Potomac Rugby Union Youth League during a summer season that began last month and ends next month.

The Potomac organization also has adult leagues and fosters college and high school play in the Baltimore-Washington area.

The kids were running around with the center of attention being an oblong ball a bit larger than an American football that can take similar, crazy bounces. They were yelling and clearly having a good time -- and working on the nuances of the game.

"It evens out the game a little bit," Jim Hulbert, head coach of the Hurricanes and a former player at Salisbury University, said of the two-hand tag requirement for a defender to stop an offensive player with the ball. "Anyone can really play the game now. You don't have to worry about getting tackled."

The traditional form of rugby that many people have seen has 15 players per side. But the two-hand tag style uses seven on a side. That also makes the old English sport, a forerunner to American football, easier for kids to understand.

Patrick Walsh, an engineer who lives in Linthicum and coaches in a youth program in Anne Arundel County, started the Potomac group's youth league eight years ago. It has grown to 600 players since then. The Anne Arundel County resident played the sport for 26 years and said that tackling is overrated.

"Tackle isn't what makes rugby rugby," said Walsh. "It's not like football and basketball, where every down the play gets called by the coach [or] the coach yells out every play. In rugby, for 75 percent of the game, the kids have to make decisions on the run, because they don't have the pressure of the tackle."

Randy Trench of Clarksville, who has two sons, Scott, 14, and Russell, 12, on the Hurricanes, agreed that the lack of tackling made the sport more appealing at first. Both his sons have been playing about six years.

"When the kids started playing, it's really tag with a ball," Trench said. "But then you have to learn the rules. However, it starts with a nonthreatening situation, and that's good for the kids, because you have no fear."

Will Brewington, who founded the Express in 1998 and now serves as the Potomac youth league's commissioner, understands the attraction of rugby. He has played the sport at Boston University and for the University of Maryland. Competition has taken him as far away as Hong Kong, Australia and Scotland.

The Express' earliest players played some scrimmages the first year before growing into a bigger program. The Express has expanded to about 85 players in three age groups (under-11, under-15, under-17). The Hurricanes also have 45 players in the same groups.

"We're a little bit more relaxed than [other sports]," Brewington said. "We want to get everyone in games. Everyone needs to play."

Brewington said the Express is coming to the point where it could move to an in-house, county program at the rec level, and also build a travel team with more experienced players, although he is unsure how good the competition might be at the travel level.

A tackle team

The Hurricanes have an under-19 high school team that has been playing tackle rugby about two years. Both club leaders said that as successful as two-hand tag has become, more tackle programs are likely on the way.

Brewington and Hulbert, both Ellicott City residents, agreed that they want the players and their families to experience the sport and what comes with it. On Saturday, many parents joined forces to set up a food stand and kept it there until the games ended.

"That's part of the culture of rugby, helping each other out," Hulbert said. "In England, where it originated, it's a very community-based sport. You'd support your local rugby club on Saturday."

Hulbert and Brewington said they want to keep the social aspects of the sport going.

"We really have a very good tradition," added Trench. "The same families come out year after year after year."

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