High school rugby gains foothold in Atlantic County with Cape Atlantic Storm |
High school rugby gains foothold in Atlantic County with Cape Atlantic Storm
Oakcrest senior Courtney Smith has spent the past four years playing high school football, and plans to enlist in the Army this summer after graduating. He figured playing rugby would be no big deal. He’s in great shape, his body could handle it. But after one game with the Cape Atlantic Storm, Smith said he realized rugby is a lot tougher sport than he thought. He said he was sore for several days after his first game with the team, which has moved up to Galloway from Cape May in an effort to attract more players to its high school level squad.
“One of my friends does it, so I just came out one day. I thought it was just an exploded football game. I’m fast and athletic, so it’s just a lot of running around and having fun,” Smith said. “It’s very similar to football, just without the pads. The last game we played I got the worst cramp in my thighs and that hurt for like three days.”
But, like many of the high school athletes who come out and try rugby, Smith fell in love with the sport instantly. It’s a lot like football in terms of tackling and moving the ball up the field, but rugby is played at a much faster pace and there is very little down time. It’s kind of like watching a tape of a football game — sans pads — in fast forward.
“It’s basically the same. Keep your head across the front, arms out, drive through the opponent,” Smith said.
Roger Howell, whose son, Grant, is a freshman at Ocean City High School, has been coaching the high school level rugby team since 2010. He said this year Cape Storm decided to team up with the Jersey Shore Sharks, a men’s team based out of Galloway, and move the team north in an effort to gain more exposure.
“We aligned ourselves with the Jersey Shore Sharks men’s club in an effort to get better facilities and resources and to increase the player pool. We started in early February and we’ve had a very positive response from the players who have come out,” Howell said. “We’re hoping for more players, more quality players and just more players in general.”
This spring, the Cape Atlantic Storm have played a few games against teams from places such as Monmouth County and Pennsylvania to give the new players a taste of what rugby is like. The team will continue to work out and play some games this summer and fall as it prepares for the 2016 spring season. Howell said rugby is a very intricate game with a lot of rules and regulations, so it takes time for new players to master the ins and outs of the game.
“Patience is a virtue. I’ve done it for so many years that it doesn’t bother me in the least. No question is a stupid question, and I’m willing to go over things 10 or 15 times if needed. There’s a plethora of written information and videos online. I go over everything that has to go on,” Howell said. “We’re monitored by USA Rugby, which is the organization that controls all of the rugby players in the United States. You have to be certified to be on the field, both as a coach and a player. So they have to know, before they come onto the field, certain aspects of the game.”
Howell said one of the biggest misconceptions about rugby is that it is more dangerous than football. He said it’s actually very safe because proper tackling techniques are taught and used. According to an article published by the Boston Globe in January, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll showed his team a video last summer of rugby players and their tackling techniques. In rugby, the article states, players tackle by leading with the shoulder rather than the head.
“Tackling is a huge aspect. In rugby, because you have no head protection, you must apply your body and your head in a certain position in order to be safe. I teach a tackling technique that will allow for that, but also allows to totally wrap up the runner. There are no arm tackles, no tripping. You’re going to get hurt if you do that,” Howell said. “They pick it up pretty quickly, and they enjoy it because they can actually bring a player to the ground instead of just trying to lash out at them. Another aspect of rugby is when you tackle someone, they have to let the ball go, and you as the tackler can get up and take the ball.”
Howell said that what really attracts a lot of guys to rugby is the fact that anyone and everyone on the field gets a chance to carry the ball. He said this is a big thrill for high school football players who have primarily played on the offensive or defensive lines during their football careers.
“What strikes me most about the players who come out is they come from a regiment of you’re either on offense or defense. In this game, you play both, all the time. It’s enlightening and they love it,” Howell said. “The big guys love it because they get to carry the ball. They don’t have to get in there and pound away all the time. And when they do get a chance to pound away, they do it well. Every single player that comes out, that is exactly the response: ‘oh, my God, I get to run with the ball, too?’ It’s beautiful.”
Grant Howell grew up playing sports such as football and crew, but has grown to love rugby the last couple of years. He’s a heavyweight wrestler at Ocean City and is one of those big guys who likes not only the chance to carry the ball, but also the camaraderie and sportsmanship that rugby is known for.
“I played football for about three years, but then I stopped and my dad said ‘why don’t you play rugby?’ It’s actually less dangerous to play rugby because there is no metal or plastic or anything. All I knew about the game when I started was that you had to pass the ball backward. I really like the camaraderie. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears. When you share that kind of thing with a person it really builds a bond,” Grant said. “Getting to know guys from maybe 20, 30 or 50 miles away, you might think they are so different from you, but when you get to know them they are very much the same.”
Coach Howell said a variety of athletes have been attracted to joining the Cape Atlantic Storm, from soccer and football players to wrestlers and rowers.
“It’s a mix. We have football players, wrestlers, guys who rowed crew. We have guys who have never seen a rugby ball before. All the guys we have this year are athletic. You don’t always have that, but that’s OK. I can make an athlete in six or seven weeks,” Howell said. “Every football player who has come out has come up to me and said this is harder than football. But it’s rewarding. My son is a great example. He trained hard for crew, but crew races are only 10 minutes long. This, he comes out and plays for an hour or two hours solid.”
The new Cape Atlantic Storm rugby team is in its relative infancy. It still relies heavily on players from Cape May County, but Howell said he hopes to continue to build the interest among athletes from Atlantic County. This year, athletes from such schools as Mainland and Oakcrest have joined the squad.
“I’m going to stay the course and get through this season,” Howell said. “We’re a little short on players this year, but this is just a stepping stone for every player to go on, whether they like the game or not. It’s up to them.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays