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.netEndFragment