Putting a new face on an old game

New men’s league looking to change image of rugby

It takes a lot to get sent to the Sin Bin.

There are no blindside hits in rugby. There’s no tackling above the numbers. You can’t dive and submarine an opposing player. There are no forward passes and no blocking.

Each of those things could likely earn you a trip to the bin of sin, Rugby’s equivalent of the hockey penalty box. To be sure, it’s a tough sport, Maryville Rugby Football Club general manager Jay Hawkins said.

“It ain’t football, but you can get hurt,” he said. “We don’t sugarcoat that.”

That withstanding, the rules of the game lend themselves to a sport accessible to players of all ages and both genders like few others.

The Maryville Highlanders, the club’s new adult men’s league, took to the pitch for the first time in a debut match with the Atlanta Bucks recently at Alcoa High School’s Goddard Field. The Highlanders brought together players of widely differing ages.

High schools seniors and college freshmen joined the line outs alongside middle-aged lawyers and salaried professionals.

“In this sport, every body size can play,” Hawkins said. “It’s a thinking man’s game.”

Burners like former William Blount High School football player Mason Howard are great for fast runs down the edges. Bullish runners like B.J. Telfer are a real plus for close-quarter scuffles. Then there are players like Maryville lawyer Chris Leonard, a player in his mid 40s, who often find themselves caught right in the middle of it all.

The Highlanders thrashed the Bucks in their debut, routing their guest from Atlanta by a convincing, 65-8 margin. Leonard didn’t leave the field with a limp, but the match’s 80 minutes of nearly non-stop running, grappling and tackling was evident in his gait.

“I’m going to feel this tomorrow,” he said.

If it can help the club bring the sport in front of more people, help make a Saturday afternoon match a community event on a large scale, all the bumps and bruises will be worth it, Leonard said. That’s been the club’s intent, he said, since its founding.

“We want to be a part of the community,” Leonard said. “We want this to be something Blount County can be proud of. It’s a big deal to us.”

Hawkins is the man most responsible for the Maryville club. A longtime FedEx employee, the Maryville coach and general manager was introduced to the game while attending Memphis State University in the early 1980s. He met Highlanders assistant coach Rick McGhie there.

“A guy at a Memphis State football game said, ‘Hey, you want to play rugby tomorrow?’” Hawkins said.

He knew little of the game, he said, but was soon playing every weekend. When his job brought him to Knoxville after college, he stayed with the game through local clubs, remaining active as a player until the late 1990s.

“It’s something to do,” Hawkins said. “You don’t want to be a coach potato. I’m 46. I play every now and then.”

In 2003, Hawkins was approached by 15 Maryville High School students about founding a club in Blount County.

“I told them, ‘If you guys want to start a team, I do things right,’” Hawkins said.

In May of that year, the Maryville Rugby Football Club joined the Smoky Mountain Athletic Club, making it eligible for play with other high school clubs from across the state. In July of 2003, the Maryville 7s finished third in their inaugural tournament.

The club has since grown to include two high school boys’ and two high school girls’ teams. The girls’ team took off soon after forming, producing players like current U.S. national team member Candace Barley in record time.

“You see girls come out there, and they’re real shy,” Hawkins said. “It gives them confidence.”

A program at the middle school level is now in place, bringing the club’s youth numbers to more than 160 kids. The launch of the adult men’s team two weeks ago was an important next step, McGhie said.

Many associate adult men’s rugby with the alcohol-fueled contests between college fraternity teams in years gone by, he said. “That’s the way most people think this game is,” McGhie said, “and it’s just not like that anymore.”

The rules governing rugby are a hurdle easily cleared, Hawkins said.

The no-blocking rule is key. Most rugby players wear no protective padding of any kind, with those who do donning only a thinly padded vest akin to a flack jacket.

All tackling must be done at the numbers on the jersey or below, with both arms around the ball carrier constituting a legal tackle.

“There’s no blocking, so you aren’t going to get blindsided like football,” Hawkins said.

Doesn’t always work out that way during play, but the rules of sportsmanship within the game can be liken to the honor code in golf in many respects.

“It’s a rough sport,” Hawkins said, “but it’s one unique in its fellowship.”

To score a touchdown, or try, a player must actually touch the ball down to the turf after crossing the goal line. A try is worth five points, with the accompanying kick, if successful, worth two points. A ball dropped kicked through the uprights during the run of play is worth three points.

Forming lines that fanned the width of Alcoa’s Goddard Field, the Highlanders continually lateraled wide on the Bucks, each successive runner charging fast ahead, until players with young legs like Alex Sparks and Howard were sprung for long scoring runs down the flanks.

It was an impressive display for a team that received its MidSouth Rugby Union accreditation only a couple of months ago. MidSouth Rugby, a division of USA Rugby, includes 11 clubs that sponsor men’s teams in four states. Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville have adult leagues for women.

Rugby’s growth on a regional and national scale hasn’t come without some friction. High school and youth football coaches worry about the game luring away players, Hawkins said. Players like William Blount High School senior linebacker Cole Lail and former Governor T.J. Walker, Highlanders both, are taking to the sport fast. Athletes from all sports seem to be finding their way to the game in bigger and bigger numbers.

“Wrestlers make great rugby players because of all the rucking,” Hawkins said. “Football players, you’ve got to let go of the blocking.”

Hawkins said he encourages players who play another sport at their high school to first focus their priorities there.

The win in the inaugural match was a big lift for the men’s team, Leonard said. There not kidding themselves, though. The club still has a long way to go, but there was a heartening sign as Hawkins and he conducted a walk-down after the match to ensure they left the facility as they’d found it.

“Look over there,” Leonard said.

Near the goal line were four small boys engrossed in an improvised scrum all to themselves, oblivious to the world around them.

© 2009 blounttoday.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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