Rugby participation on the rise

Maddie Anama of Palatine (IL) still remembers the day she scored her first five-point goal, or “got her first try” as they call it in rugby.

She’d promised a teammate sidelined by injury that she’d score for her during that match. Anama scored not once, but twice, that day. She didn’t want to get a try only for herself, but also for the benefit of her team.

That elevated level of sportsmanship and camaraderie, plus the intense physicality of the sport, is what drives boys and girls from many of the surrounding suburbs to rugby clubs in Palatine and Arlington Heights.

“It’s just the energy you feel once you get on the field. When I get on the field, I start getting nervous. Once we kick the ball or the other team kicks the ball for kickoff, all those butterflies just go away,” said 13-year-old Anama.

Sometimes a new sport starts to take hold in the suburbs. First, it was soccer; then, lacrosse. Could rugby be on the cusp of newfound popularity among suburban youth?

History of the sport

Legend has it that rugby began in the late 1800s in Great Britain, but it’s been played in various forms under different names since the Middle Ages and remains popular across the globe.

Reinstated as an Olympic sport for the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, Google searches about rugby soared during the Games this month. Local rugby coaches hope the Olympic coverage sparks an increase in rugby participation at the grass-roots level. But, already they are seeing participation in the sport grow.

Rugby clubs starting forming in the suburbs in the early 2000s and have steadily gained new members. When Rugby Illinois, the governing body in the state at the high school and younger level, was formed in 2007, only a few high school teams had been formed. Today there are 131 rugby clubs in Illinois including college clubs, adult clubs, high school, and youth clubs, said Stephanie Esposito, executive board member of Rugby Illinois.

The Arlington Stallions Rugby Club, Inc. – a community club that draws male middle school and high school students from District 214 schools, Saint Viator High School, Stevenson High School, and Christian Liberty Academy – started with 17 players, but now has 75 members who play on one of several middle school and high school teams. The high school boys team is two-time state champions.

And this rough-and-tumble sport isn’t just for boys. In fact, its popularity may be growing the fastest among girls, Esposito said.

“Hinsdale High School had more girls than boys sign up this year who are interested in playing rugby,” Esposito said.

Inclusion and teamwork

“No matter your body size, no matter your experience, you’re gonna play and everybody’s going to touch the ball. Everybody really has a good time,” said Joe Fasolo, 17, of Arlington Heights, who plays for the Arlington Stallions and the Rugby Illinois Tornados.

Joe and several other Stallions players recently returned from playing matches in South Africa with the Rugby Illinois Tornados select side, where they finished with a 3-2 record. Joe said his favorite part of rugby is the community.

“No matter where you go there’s always somebody who’s going to talk to you and be nice to you because you both play rugby,” he said.

Rugby is, above all, a team sport and one that “rewards individual creativity while requiring team play,” said Alan Burton, who in 2008 formed the Palatine Rugby Club, which is affiliated with the Palatine Park District, to offer boys and girls a chance to play on high school boys or girls teams or U14 coed teams.

“Rugby is a game where every kid gets to touch the ball, every kid gets a chance to play,” said Esposito. “Every kid’s defense, every kid’s offense and that’s a real morale booster for the kids because it’s not like they’re just there. They’re actually participating.”

High school rugby games with 15 players, or Rugby 15s, consist of two 35-minute halves of continuous play.

“There’s not just that one star player who’s always getting credit for doing something good. Every kid is praised on the field because you can’t score unless everyone on your team can work together. So I think that’s one of the reasons that kids are really loving it; because they all get to feel included every time they go out and play,” Esposito said.

Once the match begins, there’s little coaches can do to influence play, leaving split-second strategy decisions to players. Burton believes this self-directed play has a positive impact on their self-esteem.

Once the match ends, it’s customary for the home team to host the opposing team for a meal. The socials allow teams to connect and give them a chance to form friendships with students from different backgrounds and communities.

“We intermix with the other teams and then we have a conversation together and talk about the game,” said Alyssa Inacay of Roselle, who is captain of the Palatine Mutts.

Contact sport for girls

The girls who play rugby absolutely love the sport and many of them enjoy the physical contact that comes with it.

“There’s something really satisfying about being able to take down a girl twice your size,” said Anna Michelsen, 15, of Palatine. “And even if you can’t take down the girl and then your teammates come and help you take her down, that’s even more satisfying because you know they’ve got your back.”

“It is the only contact sport (for girls) that plays by the same rules and laws as the boys,” Burton says. “For a girl that wants the contact or wants to tackle, we’re really their only option,”

In the spring of 2016 the Palatine Rugby Club and the Chicago Wapiti joined forces to form a high school girls team of 23 players. They call themselves the “Mutts” because players come from different grades and places as far as Bartlett and Chicago to play on the team.

Kayla Vega, 16, of Bartlett, said she loves football and would play if she could, but she doesn’t have the opportunity. She turned to rugby as an alternative and hasn’t looked back.

“I love the intensity of it. I like to hit a lot,” Vega said. “It’s not as bad as everybody thinks it is. It’s more controlled than football.”

In their first year together, the Palatine High School Girls Mutts took home the 2016 Rugby Illinois High School Girls Division 2 and Rugby Sevens State Championship titles. They played against teams with much more experience, but the girls attribute their win to how well they gel as a team.

“We had the chemistry, we worked well, we accepted each other, helped each other get better and we won the state title,” Vega said. “It was a good experience just because no one expected us to win.”

Working hard, being safe

Not only does rugby improve players’ images of themselves, it improves their overall physical fitness and motivates them to stay active all year.

Joe Fasolo’s sister, Maddie, tried many sports before focusing on rugby, but she said none of them motivated her to work out and stay active like playing rugby has.

“Ever since the spring season I’ve been trying to work out almost every day because I want to succeed in rugby and get further, so I need to be healthy and fit for that,” she said.

While rugby is an intense and physical sport, coaches and players said it tends to be safer than other sports. It’s illegal for players to tackle anyone above the shoulders. Instead, players are required to wrap their arms around opponents in order to tackle, with best practice being to wrap their arms around rivals’ legs.

“You’re taught how to tackle properly so that no one gets hurt and how to fall properly,” said Kendall Rudolph of Bartlett, whose father, Grant, coaches the Mutts.

John Walker, president of Rugby Illinois, said an emphasis is placed on safety.

“I would suggest that parents and kids alike disregard anything negative they’ve heard about rugby and take the first step to go out to a practice, clinic or event in their area, and experience the fun firsthand for themselves. It’s one of the safest and most fun sports I’ve played and coached,” Walker said.

Future growth

All those involved in rugby encourage young adults and youth to consider giving it a try.

Rugby’s main season is spring, but clubs also have fall and summer seasons. Local teams play Rugby 15s, which allows for 15 players on the pitch, and Rugby 7s, which consists of seven players on each team and is the form of rugby played in the Olympics.

“There’s no harm in trying”, said Brianna Galvin, 16, who travels from Chicago to play with the Mutts. “The worst that can happen is that you get knocked to the ground and think, ‘Oh this isn’t for me.'”

Walker said one of the goals of Rugby Illinois is to get younger kids involved in rugby.

“One of our (Rugby Illinois) main focuses is to grow programs for kids as young as first grade. Getting a rugby ball in the hands of kids from first through 12th grade is what Rugby Illinois envisions,” Walker said.

While it’s always fun to win, Paul Bergman, founder and head coach of the Arlington Stallions, said it’s more about how the teams play the game and the friendships they make along the way. He remembers watching the first Arlington Stallions team bond after practice one day.

“I looked over at this picnic table and there were six kids sitting there and they were talking to each other like they had known each other all their lives,” said Bergman. “I realized of those six kids, they were from six different high schools.”- by Colette House, Chicago Daily Herald