My Pitch

The case for varsity rugby

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History was made this past week, as Pilgrim and Bishop Hendricken rugby went head to head in the first-ever RI Rugby State Championship, with the Hawks claiming the title.

Obviously, rugby is not yet an official varsity sport in the state, and only has three teams altogether, but it is a sport that I believe the Rhode Island Interscholastic League should take a hard look at promoting.

Football has always been my favorite sport, and like my fellow pigskin fans, it is right around this time of the year that I begin to experience withdrawals. It feels like the Super Bowl and local championships were ages ago, and we still have another three months before things get underway.

What is the perfect substitute to bridge the gap though? Rugby.

I had covered rugby prior to last week’s game. When I was working in Biddeford, ME a few years back, I covered the development of the University of New England’s women’s rugby team, which transitioned from a club team to a varsity program. In both cases, whether it be UNE or on the local stage here, I have always felt that this sport has a ton of potential in the US.

The gameplay is similar to football overall, in a very basic sense. Each team’s ultimate goal is to push the ball across the end zone to score points, followed by extra points with kicks. There is tackling, passing, similar team sizes, similar field dimensions, there are so many parallels with football.

However, there are plenty of differences that make rugby different, and a bit refreshing when comparing it to football. I am not a rugby coach, so to really dig into the gameplay and strategy would be outside of my credentials, but from a casual onlooker, it is the perfect blend of similar and different with football, and looks to be every bit as fun.

Why should the RIIL consider adding and promoting this sport? For many reasons if you ask me.

First off, as a sports fan, I am always in favor of adding new sports. Why not give kids as many options as possible in athletics? Why not open more doors and opportunities to be active, healthy, interact with friends, while also adding a varsity letter to your resume prior to college?

Rugby is definitely not a sport for the faint of heart. Like football, it is full contact, maybe even more so in this case. It is fast paced, physical, and can even be a bit dangerous at times. Many people argue that rugby is safer than football due to the lack of pads used, but I am not going to go down that rabbit hole at the moment. But the overall point I’m making is that this is certainly not a sport that anyone can just walk into on a whim.

Safety and the ruggedness could be the only downside to introducing rugby as a varsity sport, but when compared to football, wrestling, hockey, it really is not much different.

There are plenty of benefits outside of just the basic ones I previously mentioned.

Bringing rugby to our local schools here would be a great way to teach kids a new culture. Rugby is still dominated by clubs and countries overseas, primarily in New Zealand and areas of Africa. Bringing in a sport that was originated and thriving in other countries could be a great learning tool.

Beyond that, it could also be a great way to promote teamwork and unity, in the sense that kids will be in the same boat in the early going learning a new sport. What better way to build a team and a culture than starting from the ground up … literally.

This was Pilgrim’s inaugural season as a program. I had heard updates regarding the team throughout the spring, how the kids were working hard, having fun, improving each day. They even won a few games against tough competition, everything seemed to be going smoothly.

When I watched the Pats against the Hawks, who have had their team for a decade now, they certainly held their own. Sure, Hendricken had the advantage, but it was far from a breeze for them to earn the victory. The Pilgrim team deserves a lot of credit for how fast it developed this spring, and I think it goes to show how much kids can accomplish when they buy into the same goal.

The question from here is whether or not a new sport can pick up steam. When speaking to Pilgrim coach Scott Bayha earlier this season, he admitted that they are still a ways away from the game becoming an official varsity sport. I understand that it will be a process, but why should we have to wait and see it be dragged out?

The only real way to promote this sport is to continue to shine light on it and to get more kids involved, and it starts by watching the game. I guarantee that a lot of kids, especially football players that are working through the offseason, would be interested if they simply watched a game or two.

So, this is my advice, my plea to you. Please consider watching or attending a rugby game, just give it a chance. Obviously, the high school season is over, but there are plenty of men’s leagues in the New England area, and there are plenty of pro leagues that you can watch online. If there is any non-varsity sport that could catch on and catch on fast, it’s rugby.

NOTE: Keep an eye on a larger story regarding this season in upcoming editions of the Warwick Beacon.

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