Rugby players in scrum to popularize sport in U.S.

In aftermath of World Cup, Maryland club sees potential for growth

October 29, 2011|By Cassie Duffy, The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK — The Rugby World Cup, a 48-match quadrennial tournament that drew 1.4 million fans in New Zealand over six weeks, ended in late October with the host All Blacks outlasting France, 8-7. But even though rugby has stepped off its biggest stage, the sport remains a unifying presence around the world — both in places where the game is established and in places where it's scratching and clawing to gain a foothold, including U.S. college campuses.

The Maryland Rugby Club is one of many university teams notable for its international diversity. Its technical coach, Peter Baggetta, was the national team coach and rugby development officer for his home island of Guam.

"These guys," he said of his players at Maryland, "can go anywhere in the world, find somebody that they know or through somebody, and they'd have a place to stay, they could play for a rugby club, they get taken care of. That's what's pretty unique about rugby; that doesn't happen in a lot of other sports."

Trevor Tanifum, a senior wing and fullback who moved here three years ago from Romsey, England, sees potential for rugby in the United States.

"It's a massive country. It has so many athletes, and although the people start off playing the traditional sports like football [and] basketball, by the time you get to college, the people who played in high school get so much narrowed down," he said. "So there's a lot of athletes just walking around without much to do, so if you can build up the interest in this sport, America can really do well in it."

Tanifum and Matias Cima, a senior flyhalf from Buenos Aires, Argentina, took some ribbing from their Maryland teammates when their home countries were eliminated from the World Cup in the quarterfinals.

"Argentina played much better than England. England was a bit of an embarrassment at this point [for] the most well-funded team in the world," Baggetta joked. Tanifum laughed it off, saying he "gets this all the time."

The Maryland Rugby Club's primary focus, of course, is not on international play but on its own league competition.

The club, founded in 1967, is now part of the Atlantic Coast Rugby League — a USA Rugby Men's Collegiate Division I conference that consists of Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, Clemson, Virginia Tech, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Duke.

"The ACC only started last year because what people wanted to start doing was to align the rugby teams with the traditional conferences so that people would understand it a little bit more and get a bit more excited about it," Baggetta said.

The biggest challenge, the coach said, is financing. Although the team gets some funding from Campus Recreation Services, he said, much of the necessary money comes from out of pocket. Last year, the team went to Charlotte to play North Carolina, won the ACC, then had to travel Bowling Green, Ohio, two weeks later for national playoffs.

"For club-sport athletes, that's a pretty tough ask," Baggetta said.

Another obstacle is that clubs at some schools get more university support — field space, weight facilities — than others.

"If you look at any other varsity sports, it's a level playing field," said Baggetta, who also is head coach for Gonzaga College High and a coach educator for the USA Rugby Coach Development Program. "Everybody starts practice on the same day, everybody has basically the same type of facilities. Rugby [does] not, and that makes for a huge challenge."

Rugby players and fans can take heart in statistics that show the sport's growth.

According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, participation in rugby among 13- and 14-year-olds has increased 50.7 percent since 2009.

Rugby Sevens — a version in which each team has seven players instead of the usual 15 — will be included in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and Cima believes it could catapult the sport to popularity in America.

"Watching it on TV, it looks interesting," said Cima, who lives in Bethesda but whose father still resides in Argentina and played rugby for many years there. "There's tackling, there's hitting other people, there's running with the ball, and it will get a lot of those guys who were good athletes in high school to come out and play in college when they don't have a team to play on."

American athletes who give rugby a shot might face a rough transition, however.

"I feel like football players don't really know how to tackle," Cima said. "That's why they wear those pads."

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