The posting on social media touted: “Five fields, 73 teams, 1000+ kids, dozens of Refs, hundreds of parents, a dog or 2, Cups, Bowls, Plates and Shields and a whole lot of youth rugby.”
The reality proved to be all that and more as the Potomac Rugby Union Youth League wrapped up their 16th summer season with a 2-day annual tournament. On Saturday and Sunday July 27th and 28th Freedom Park in rural Sykesville, MD took on a carnival-like atmosphere as dozens of festively colored tents dotted the landscape and youngsters and their parents made their way among the 5 scattered pitches.
Veteran PRU Referee and Coach, Pat Walsh has witnessed this tournament’s growth since its inception.
“We started with 5 clubs of Under-11s and Under-15s. 150 kids, tops. Now there are more clubs with more kids and a bigger age range.”
While most of the players this week-end were 8 to 15 years old, a few were as young as 4 ½ making for some of the most interesting front rows ever seen.
Andy Shehan coaches the U9 team for the Lutherville/Timonium Vipers, a 20 year old youth rugby club in suburban Baltimore.
“I’ve got a lot of 4½-year-olds so I tend to put them there (the scrum) because they don’t have the wheels. But they play hard so I want them to be able to play and enjoy themselves and hopefully learn something.”
The Vipers came to the tournament Saturday with 16 under 9 players. “You start from scratch every year at this level.” Shehan lamented. “I had a huge player drain this year when a lot of kids moved up to U-11. We came here last year and were the dominant U-9 team. This year is a rebuilding year for us.”
The website of the Andover MD Apaches, of which Pat Walsh is the Youth League Commissioner, explains that “this form of rugby intends to eliminate collisions and minimize contact in order to introduce the game to youth. All of the other rules of rugby apply.” With these exceptions; lineouts and scrums are uncontested (hence the tiny front rows), rucks and mauls in a form are included (a team in possession of the ball with 2 or more players at the break-down may verbally declare “MAUL” and restart rugby league style), tackles are made when the ball carrier is touched with 2 hands in the shorts area and you must give a ball carrier 1 meter of free area to pass. Drop kicks or kicking from a tee are allowed for extra points after a try. U9 and U11 are allowed to move the ball in front of the posts to kick. The size of the pitch is reduced to 40x70 for U9 and U11 and 60x80 for U13 and U15.
I met a budding drop-kick specialist in Christopher Clayton. His Father, Jeremy Clayton, is the U9 coach for the Howard County Hurricanes. Jeremy played 4 years of collegiate rugby and 4 years with the local Men’s club before taking up youth coaching. 8 year old Christopher already has 4 years of experience under his belt and is almost a sure thing when it comes to conversions “I practice a lot.” He said. His teammate Sophia Cinotti boiled the game down to it’s essence, “Trust in each other and score trys.” Rugby is a family thing with the Cinottis’ Sophia’s older Brother and Sister also play as well as her Dad, Anthony. “I love that it’s a team sport and that every kid that comes out loves the sport.” He added, “It also keeps the kids in great shape over the summer. They form great bonds and we have friends forever from playing rugby.”
Mom Laura O’Sullivan appreciates the family atmosphere that rugby promotes. “I like the personality of rugby. It’s a real team environment and not just a team sport. It’s a lot of families and a lot of camaraderie.” She continued “My Husband plays rugby and was playing when I met him so we have been around rugby now 25 or 30 years. It’s got a lot of positive attitude. They don’t yell at the ref and I think these are great things to teach my children.” Son Conner enjoys playing flyhalf for his team and also plays soccer and lacrosse. When pressed, he grudgingly admitted he would continue with rugby if forced to choose. His Sister, Eva added simply, “It’s fun!”
Coach Mike O’Brien started the Arden Youth Rugby program 5 years ago. He has seen it grow from 20 kids of assorted ages to just under 100 with touch rugby teams for U9 to U13 and a U17 tackle team. “The kids just love it.” he said. “They love the attitude, the values, the culture. The parents see how all of the coaches in the league interact with each other and that they respect each other. Its just so refreshing from what they see in other organized sports.” Mike, also a PRU Referee, started a team because his then 8 year old Son asked him too. “I told him ‘If you get the players, I’ll coach the team.’”
That son is now a sophomore at Mt. St. Joseph High School in Baltimore and competes in the five-team Maryland Independent Athletic Association Rugby League.
“Our goal is to get more kids involved and see them move on to play in high school and college.” said Brian Mihelic. Brian started the rugby program at Coolidge High School in urban Washington, DC and is now Head Coach of Washington DC Youth Rugby. He started in 2004 with 7 kids, “just enough to field a team” and now has close to 100 on the roster. What started as “just some kids in the neighborhood throwing a ball around” has grown into a family program with kids and parents from diverse communities.
“We have kids from the inner city playing on the same team as someone whose parents work at the Embassies,” said Mihelic, adding that they also coach the kids on the importance of good nutrition and of getting good grades and staying in school. “It’s more than just rugby” he said. “It’s being a good person, a healthy individual and a good citizen as well.” Obviously the approach has been successful as graduates of the program are now playing at Penn State, Clemson and Mary Washington Universities while another has returned to play for the Washington Men’s Club and help coach his old youth club teams.
Pete Freeman plays with the Severn River Old Boys and has been involved with the Green Hornets of Severna Park for the past 8 years. Out of 81 players on the youth club roster, 70 turned up to play in the PRUYL Tournament last week-end.
“Sportsmanship is the #1 thing we try and pass along to our youngsters,” said Freeman. “I love seeing the kids succeed and learn and grow. Several of our former players are now High School All-Americans and 2 of our girls have gone on to the US Women Eagles. It’s just awesome.”
Many Coaches of these younger age groups referred to the A-Ha Moment, or “when a kid just gets it.”
“You see a couple of kids who aren’t sure at first what to do but when it clicks and they suddenly get it well that’s pretty special," said Brian Mihelic.
"You see that they are enjoying it and that’s really special for me,” added Walsh.
“Something magical happens about halfway through the season. They suddenly know just what they are doing and they begin playing well with each other and the whole time they are just having fun.” Andy Shehan of the diminutive Vipers said “It happened today! I had a kid kick for touch beautifully and he scored the winning try off of the line-out and that was fantastic. I love that moment when it just clicks and all comes together. If I can just pass something on so I can give the coach who comes after me something to work with. “
Mike O’Brien added: “I love seeing the kids adapt to rugby. When they say ‘I LOVE this sport, when they ‘buy in’ then it’s awesome.”
Neil Bocchetta has been playing rugby for 30 years “An old roommate of mine introduced me to the game. He said that he thought I might like it. I went out and watched half a game, played the second half and I’ve been hooked ever since.” He says his Son, Anthony “ ...got his self involved. I did not push it on him. We were watching the College Rugby 7s Championship last spring and he said ‘Dad I’d like to try that’.” Anthony likes to play scrumhalf, flyhalf and center. He watches the All Blacks and “anyone that’s on TV.” His Father, Neil said “you can teach these kids 20 things at practice and if you see 1 boy or 1 girl do something that you taught them in a game….that’s as good as gold.” Young Anthony confidently stated that he too would be still playing rugby in 30 years.
Mark Miller is another 30 year veteran who has brought his Son into the game. Evan Miller has been playing rugby at the Under 9 level for 5 years. He started at 4 years old when Dad was coaching his older sister’s team and he asked to join. Evan “likes to score tries and show his speed.” Father Mark saw rugby for the first time via a video in his high school PE class. “I said ‘I have to play that game.’” He started playing in college and has been at it ever since. Now he is Coaching a U-9 team. Mark enjoys “The speed of the game, the contact and the all out commitment from the players. Also, the friends that you make. I’ve been able to play all over the world. It’s just a phenomenal sport and now I’ve got my Son hooked on it. I hope He’ll be able to play it his whole life. He just started at 4 instead of 18 like I did.” Young Evan Miller looks up to New Zealand 7s Player Curt Baker and the Fijian Legend Tomasi Cama. Father and Son are planning a trip to the Las Vegas 7s Tournaments after Evan turns 10.
LT Viper Coach Andy Shehan summed it all up when he said of these Rookie Ruggers “ We just want them to enjoy the game and carry on so our sport grows. My generation and the one behind us are never going to make it to that top tier of rugby but hopefully as kids this young cycle thru it will evolve and it will get better and hopefully we’ll catch up to say….the Tongans next or the Pacific Islanders or maybe we’ll be competitive with Italy. The eventual thing is that hopefully, someday the USA WILL be in that top tier where we will actually be competing with the Europeans and the Southern Hemisphere.” Someday.