Rugby kicks into high gear

At Play

A new program aims to support and benefit from the sport's growing popularity

May 23, 2007|By JEFF SEIDEL | JEFF SEIDEL,Special To The Sun

Rugby might be very popular, but try telling that to the Anne Arundel players who have had to drive as far as Carroll County to find another team to play.

Sensing a growing interest in the game - and the opportunity to encourage another generation of rugby players - a pair of local rugby fans are starting Maryland's first county-based youth rugby organization.

Anne Arundel Youth Rugby will have six community-based programs when it starts its first season next month: Andover, Arden, Cape St. Claire, Edgewater and Severna Park, along with South Bowie.

Teams will be formed for kids in the under-8, under-11 and under-16 age groups. Single-gender rugby also will be played in the under-17 and under-19 divisions.

"Just being able to do this in the county tells me that we are achieving a certain amount of growth that's sustainable," said Pat Walsh, one of the organizers. "We're trying to make it available to see who else might try playing it, and it's more identifiable ... [with] a better county foundation."

Anne Arundel Youth Rugby will also be part of the Potomac Rugby Union Youth League, which includes programs from the Baltimore, Washington and Northern Virginia areas.

Its annual season-ending tournament comes to Anne Arundel County the first week in August, with about 30 clubs and 70 teams overall.

Rugby always has been on the outside of the American sports world. The USA Rugby Web site said the sport's popularity first started to grow around the turn of the 20th century, and it was included in the Olympics in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924, with the American teams winning gold medals in the latter two.

But the International Olympic Committee dropped rugby after the 1924 Games, a move that crushed its growth here for the next half-century.

However, rugby has enjoyed something of a rebirth in the past 20 or 30 years. USA Rugby was formed in 1975 and is the game's national governing body. It has about 65,000 members.

On the local level, rugby has taken off more recently. Walsh said that the first children's program in the Baltimore-Washington area started in 1995 in the Lutherville-Timonium area of Baltimore County, with Anne Arundel teams beginning after that.

Rugby is also gaining local popularity at the high school level. The Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association, a group for boys athletic teams in private schools in the Baltimore metro area, has five varsity rugby squads, one of which is at Archbishop Spalding. The Cavaliers had an 0-5 record this season.

Rugby shares some similarities with football and soccer. In rugby, each team has seven players on the field, compared with 11 in soccer and football. Rugby players move the ball by tossing and running, much more like football than soccer.

Walsh has long been considered the guru of Anne Arundel County rugby. He serves on the Youth Rules Committee for USA Rugby, the national governing body of rugby, and is the youth director for the Potomac Rugby Union and the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union.

Garnering more interest in the sport is the driving force behind starting Anne Arundel Youth Rugby. Mike O'Brien, of Arden, said it's registered about 300 children to start practice in early June.

"From a parent's perspective, you're not going to have to have people drive to Frederick and New Windsor and all over the place," O'Brien said. "It will all be in Anne Arundel County."

Each team will be playing six to 10 games before the season-ending tournament. It's also common for the various rugby clubs to have teams in different age groups, all of whom should compete at one site this summer - which could add to crowds and popularity.

"There have been teams playing in the county for a long time," O'Brien said. "As new teams come in, it makes sense that we play each other, and we think that by having a county-based organization that we can encourage other recreation associations to sponsor teams, and that will develop more opportunities."

Those interested in joining should contact Pat Walsh at 410-691-9970 or walshpj@erols.com.

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