Welcome to rugby nation


Amer­ic­ans are creatures of habit, which would ex­plain why our fa­vor­ite sports tend to be base­ball, bas­ket­ball and foot­ball — the ones that have been around long be­fore any of us were here.

So what about rugby?

At the very best, the ma­jor­ity of people have only a su­per­fi­cial know­ledge of a sport that is on par with soc­cer, as far as pop­ular­ity, in coun­tries like Eng­land, Aus­tralia, New Zea­l­and and Ire­land (to name a few). However, that hasn’t stopped loc­al rugby en­thu­si­asts from try­ing to change the per­cep­tion of a sport they feel hasn’t been giv­en a fair shake.

The North­east Phil­adelphia Rugby Club formed about a year ago, and it has taken the par­ti­cipants that long to or­gan­ize them­selves in­to a team. It’s still an on­go­ing pro­cess, as the club just met their new coach at Sat­urday’s prac­tice (about six weeks or so be­fore their first game), but it’s cer­tainly a pro­cess that has brought astound­ing pro­gress — sim­il­ar to the sport it­self in the states and in this par­tic­u­lar re­gion.

Coaches and play­ers alike try to re­cruit out­side with the al­lure of a fast-paced, ex­cit­ing, phys­ic­al, team-ori­ented sport. They say that, in­stead of fo­cus­ing on why it’s so dif­fer­ent from tra­di­tion­al, Amer­ic­an grass­roots sports, those with an open mind should in­stead look at why it’s sim­il­ar to the games we’ve all grown to love.

“I think a road­b­lock for rugby is that so many people do get caught up in the dif­fer­ences,” said head coach Joe Gro­hovsky right be­fore prac­ti­cing with his new team for the first time on Sat­urday. “I say let’s look at the sim­il­ar­it­ies. A first-time ob­serv­er watch­ing a rugby match would see an aw­ful lot of run­ning, an aw­ful lot of ball-hand­ling and a fair bit of con­tact. What guy or girl out there hasn’t grown up play­ing a sport like that?”

To be fair, rugby is very dif­fer­ent from the sports we’re used to, but fun­da­ment­ally, Gro­hovsky and rugby sup­port­ers like him do have a point. It’s re­lated most closely to soc­cer, but it does cap­ture as­pects of any sport that people watch on a reg­u­lar basis.

In ad­di­tion to the phys­ic­al con­tact and con­stant speed/ball move­ment, it’s quickly no­tice­able (even while ob­serving a prac­tice) that rugby is the ul­ti­mate team sport. In es­sence, it’s a melt­ing pot of the sports Amer­ic­ans love, which means that us­ing cul­tur­al gaps as an ex­cuse won’t fly these days as the game’s pop­ular­ity in­creases do­mest­ic­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally.

To give a brief syn­op­sis, the ob­ject of the game is to carry a ball (which looks like a fat­ter, thick­er ver­sion of the Amer­ic­an foot­ball) over the op­pos­ing team’s goal line and place the ball onto the ground be­fore be­ing tackled by the oth­er team. This is called a “try,” and is worth five points.

Teams can also score on a drop goal for three points, pla­cing the ball on a tee when play is stopped and try­ing to kick it through a set of field-goal up­rights. When teams are not at­tempt­ing scores, they are con­stantly run­ning. One of the most in­ter­est­ing parts of the game is that if the play­er with the ball fears a tackle is com­ing, he or she can­not ad­vance the ball by throw­ing it for­ward; rather, it must be thrown back­ward to a trail­ing play­er, who will then at­tempt to pick up where the tackled play­er left off.

“Every­body has a job out there, and you’re held ac­count­able by every­one on the team to do that job,” said Mike Mc­Manus, one of the two ori­gin­al mem­bers left from the club when it formed last year. “It’s a broth­er­hood in that re­spect. You get to know people’s tend­en­cies pretty quickly out there, and as a res­ult you grow closer as a team. Once you start play­ing, it’s just a game you al­ways want to be around.”

Mc­Manus was one of six people who came out for the ori­gin­al team, a num­ber that has bal­looned to about 100 in the time since. There are 60 or so mem­bers of the men’s team, and the in­terest has been so fer­vent that the club also has a fe­male team that sports about 15 to 20 people so far. Yes, girls can play too, and they love that rugby gives them a chance when foot­ball so of­ten over­looks them.

“I hon­estly star­ted play­ing be­cause they wouldn’t let me play foot­ball,” said Tina Ry­an, vice pres­id­ent of the club and a mem­ber of the wo­men’s team. “It’s fun and ag­gress­ive to play, but not only that, it’s something dif­fer­ent to learn.”

Though the mem­bers of the club are still get­ting to know one an­oth­er (Mc­Manus said that a lot of the play­ers don’t even know each oth­er’s last names), the bonds have already formed. Now they plan on work­ing out the kinks to­geth­er be­fore their first game on March 17, while the wo­men play their first con­test a week later.

It’s mainly a group of loc­al res­id­ents, ran­ging any­where from high school kids to people in their late 20s or early 30s. The good part about rugby is that any­one can play if will­ing to put in the work to learn, and odds are you will meet some in­ter­est­ing new friends along the way.

“I grew up in May­fair, but I didn’t start play­ing rugby un­til I joined the Navy and went over to Ja­pan,” said 23-year-old play­er Matt Matkowski. “It took me all over, from Thai­l­and to Singa­pore to Vi­et­nam to Aus­tralia. The game has such a glob­al ap­peal, es­pe­cially be­cause of its phys­ic­al as­pect. It’s not a sport where one play­er is out there do­ing everything, or even can do everything. Nobody is a single en­tity or star. We’re just all links in the chain, and if one breaks then we all fall apart.”

While the sport con­tin­ues to grow in the states — PPL Park in Chester will host an event this sum­mer to show­case the best col­lege play­ers in the na­tion, ones that will likely be play­ing in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 when rugby be­comes an Olympic sport again — mem­bers of the North­east Philly Rugby Club en­cour­age people to take it slow while ex­plor­ing their in­terest. The men will play their first home game on March 24, while the wo­men will play at home the fol­low­ing week at the field on Linden Av­en­ue, next to the Delaware River.

“I just tell people to come out and watch a game,” said Gro­hovsky, who has been in­volved in the sport for more than 40 years. “It’s that simple. The ac­tion is in­vig­or­at­ing. It’ll catch hold of you, and what comes after is un­beat­able. You can’t find that any­where … at least I haven’t.” ••

To find out more about the North­east Phil­adelphia Rugby Club, vis­it www.neprugby.us or e-mail re­cruit­er Ry­an Roberts at Rl_Roberts@com­cast.net


You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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