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Friday, April 18, 2008
Rugby to Take Over at Balloon Fiesta Park
By Rick Wright
Of the Journal
The sport of rugby, coming this weekend to a Balloon Fiesta Park near you, is growing faster than your next-door neighbor's St. Bernard puppy.
"High school rugby is blowing up," said Sara John, director of communications for USA Rugby. "Youth rugby is blowing up. Women's collegiate rugby, huge. In the different realms (of the game), they're saying it's averaging about 8 percent growth a year."
Yet, as the USA Rugby National Guard Men's and Women's College Club Playoffs kick off today in Albuquerque, misconceptions still exist.
For example: the object of the game is to score more points than the other guy, not to leave more teeth on the field.
Beer consumption after a game is optional, not mandatory.
And while soccer has been described as a gentleman's game played by gentlemen, U.S. football as a beastly game played by beasts and rugby as a beastly game played by gentlemen, there's really nothing beastly about it.
"A lot of people think it's this brutal sport and it's just chaos," John said. "But, especially when you get to this (the collegiate) level, it's organized chaos.
"It's a lot safer than it looks. ... The tackling's a lot different than in football. (Without helmets and pads), you have to wrap up and then bring the player down, which is a lot safer than just going in with your head."
At the risk of impugning the reputation of hard-partying ruggers of past generations, John said, the collegiate players on display at Balloon Fiesta Park are as fit and as dedicated to their game as any athletes in any other.
"When you get to the higher levels," she said, "there's really not a lot of partying. It's just about training for the sport."
A total of 48 teams 24 men's, 24 women's are in Albuquerque for the college playoffs. The three-day event consists of the rounds of 16 and eight for Division I, and the quarterfinals and semifinals for Division II.
The national championships will be contested May 2-3 at Stanford University.
Rugby is not an NCAA sport though the women's game has emerging-sport status and the teams in Division I don't necessarily correspond to the D-I we know and love in football and basketball.
Today at 2:30 p.m., in men's Division I, Army will take on Cal Poly. At 4:30, in women's D-I, Brown will scrum with West Chester.
John said USA Rugby, the sport's national governing body, covets full-fledged NCAA status for college teams. The more popular the game becomes at the high school level, especially among girls, the more likely that is to happen.
Becky Carlson, USA Rugby's Emerging Sports Program Manager, attended last December's National Federation of State High School Association Convention in Nashville, Tenn. Making rugby a high school varsity sport, rather than a club sport, would be a huge step.
Some girls aspire to play football but are frustrated by lack of opportunity. Rugby could be a viable alternative as physical as football but far less expensive.
As for those who prefer to watch from the sidelines or the stands, John said, "We're really pushing that if you come out and watch it, you'll fall in love with it.
"Once you've seen rugby, you can't get enough of it."
Action starts today at 1:30 p.m. Though UNM has qualified for both the men's and women's playoffs in past seasons, it did not do so this year.
Tickets are $10 per day or $25 for the weekend.
Many activities, in addition to the games themselves, are planned.
"It's not just the 48 best college teams in a great rugby competition," John said.
"It's a fan festival."
Catch Rick Wright's column at www.abqjournal.com. E-mail him at email@example.com