Friday, June 06, 2008

Rugby Continues to Translate in Area

Rugby Continues to Translate in Area
By B.J. Koubaroulis
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 6, 2008; E11

Read About the Championship

Gareth Willatt reels in the lateral, slides his hands around the curved edges of the oblong rugby ball, tucks it under his arm and sets about precisely navigating the turf field at Old Redskins Park.

As he negotiates the gaps between a group of his teammates, Willatt weaves and dives, absorbing shouts from his NOVA under-19 coaches. He's constantly processing the team's plays: "Cougar," "Cobra Sprint," "Viper," often calling variations -- or audibles -- to other setups such as "New Zealand" and "Australia."

Willatt's NOVA U-19 club team -- made up of players from 10 Virginia high schools and two middle schools -- is practicing for tomorrow's 3:30 p.m. state championship matchup with Western Suburbs, a Loudoun-based team. The state championship, Virginia's first unofficial title game, will end the first season of Rugby Virginia, an eight-team league formed from Potomac Rugby Union's summer youth leagues with teams in Loudoun, Springfield, Alexandria, McLean and Winchester.

The move toward a state-based model follows the blueprint set by lacrosse, which spent nearly two decades as a Virginia club sport before earning official Virginia High School League recognition in 2006."I was in high school when they had the first rumblings of a lacrosse team at Chantilly, and now Chantilly is in the state lacrosse tournament," said coach Mike Murphy, 37, a 1988 Chantilly graduate who now is a teacher at the school and in his 12th year as a youth rugby coach. "Rugby can be like that."

Willatt, who has orally committed to play rugby next year at Ohio State, spends much of the practice spouting terms such as "scrum, crouch, tuck, pause, engage, set it, pit, ruck" and an Americanized term Murphy likes to toss around, "junkyard."

It's a language Willatt's been learning since he was a 10-year-old playing pickup rugby on summer visits to his father's native England.

An 18-year-old Oakton High School senior, Willatt is what Murphy calls the league's "poster child" -- the kind of player area organizers hope will comprise the league annually.

Most are varsity castoffs whose practice gear bears the evidence of their former loyalties; one player in a mesh Oakton lacrosse jersey and another in a black cut-off T-shirt with the words "Chantilly Basketball." Some are football players looking for unorthodox offseason conditioning options or a new challenge, such as Springfield Youth Club West End's Titus Pennington, a South County senior who rushed for nearly 1,000 yards as a running back this fall.

"A lot of kids, if they're not the star of their high school sport, even if they are one of the starting players, with, like, football, they might not get the ball every time," said Willatt, one of five NOVA U-19 players whose parents are British. "Rugby, they get out there, they get their hands on the ball, they get to hit people, they get to tackle."

Potomac Rugby Union -- a group that has managed metro area rugby since the late 1970s -- sparked "Rugby Virginia" as its first step toward creating a state-based model. "What Americans understand is state championships," said Kurt Mockenhaupt, executive director of PRU and a board member with Rugby Virginia.

In the past, the PRU's best teams from Virginia, Maryland and the District played in a complex playoff system, with the best teams advancing to a mid-Atlantic playoff before going on to the national championship tournament, but "now, with the Virginia state system, it's easy to see how it's supposed to play out," Willatt said.

Rugby Virginia's emergence from the PRU coincides with this year's national tournament last weekend in Pittsburgh, which for the first time in nearly 30 years of existence separated club and school-based teams, having each play for separate national titles. "One of our goals is to get enough teams to qualify to be part of the VHSL and [Virginia Independent School League] and have that recognition," Mockenhaupt said.

The VHSL requires that any varsity team be attached to a school within its membership. T.C. Williams, which went 3-4 in Rugby Virginia this spring, is the state's only public high school with such a team as all 25 players attend the Alexandria school.

However, the rest of Virginia is still far from meeting the VHSL's requirements for an official stamp, but organizers have placed "Game Development Officers" in Richmond, the Tidewater area, Fredericksburg, Charlottesville and Roanoke whose job it is to "Get youth and high school rugby up and running as quick as they can," Mockenhaupt said.

"I'd just like to see [rugby] become a varsity sport in high schools," Willatt said. "Playing for your high school is just a big deal and especially at American high schools."


Although Virginia is getting ready for its first unofficial state rugby championship, the sport is flourishing elsewhere in the area.

Look no further than Gonzaga's appearance at last weekend's USA Rugby National Championships -- a Pittsburgh tournament that welcomed the nation's top high school teams.

Gonzaga, the top seed from the mid-Atlantic, finished ranked sixth in the nation. The Eagles have 150 players in the program competing on four teams -- A team, B team and freshman and sophomore teams. Rugby is a recognized varsity sport at Gonzaga.

Elsewhere, the metro area is dense with quality rugby, accounting for 41 of the mid-Atlantic's 98 under-19 teams, according to a recent study by Eleven of those are girls' teams, according to the study. There are 777 teams nationwide.

The new Virginia league "will encourage growth in school teams, which is where we need to be because with school teams comes administration, fields, stipends and all the stuff that comes with being a varsity program," Gonzaga Coach Lee Kelly said.

--B.J. Koubaroulis

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