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Rugby Week: Guest commentary: Rugby is Utah's newest sports tradition

Published: Tuesday, April 29 2014 3:10 p.m. MDT

BYU Ben Keith is tackled by Utah compete during rugby in Provo on Friday, April 4, 2014. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) BYU Ben Keith is tackled by Utah compete during rugby in Provo on Friday, April 4, 2014. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

When people find out I played and coach rugby, the usual response is "Tough sport." When I tell them I coach a high school girls team, they don't know what to think. Perhaps "courageous" is a better word than "tough," and Utah is apparently full of courageous youths and young adults.

Not too long ago in another state, I was working my shift in the ICU. A man in his twenties came to my attention by screaming at the top of his lungs in his hospital room. It turns out the man was having an IV line placed and didn't like it, which isn't surprising, but such a response from this particular guy was curious. The man apparently belonged to a well-known gang as evidenced by the tattoo on his neck which stated as much. In fact, the man was covered with tattoos. The most notable was the words "no surrender" tattooed across his forehead. When I explained to him that little old ladies tolerate the same procedure without a peep, he finally agreed to allow three nurses to hold him still while the IV was placed as he couldn't resist flinching away from the needle.

Conversely, last year I witnessed a 17-year-old boy shatter a bone in his hand in the first 5 minutes of a 70-minute rugby game. He stayed in the game and his hand was taped at halftime (no timeouts in rugby). He played the rest of the game passing and catching the ball and tackling opponents. Later that evening he sought medical attention which ultimately required plates and screws in the hand. That rugby player has recently accepted a two-year assignment to serve a humble people as a missionary. I don't know what happened to the gang member.

While these two observations are offered anecdotally, one can't help wonder what kind of person would play a sport as rough as rugby. Utah is the place to find that answer. In fact, to say that Utah may be the epicenter of growth in youth rugby in America would not be an overstatement. Utah Youth Rugby, a nonprofit organization, is the governing body of a group that now includes 30 varsity level teams. Many of these teams also have separate ninth and 10-grade teams and sixth- to eighth-grade teams, and this year there are 11 girls rugby teams with a few more in development. When combined with the summer programs offered for kids 6 to 14, the organization serves over 2,500 kids every year.

Of course this steady growth the sport has experienced over the years wouldn't be possible without dedicated coaches. Many varsity-level coaches spend 15 to 20 hours per week for four months every spring and all are unpaid. For this reason, among others, the cost of participation is a fraction of other sports. But whereas the sport was much less popular a generation ago, one current limiting factor is the number of qualified coaches. So Utah Youth Rugby has created a program and events to train and teach adults interested in coaching and hopes to add coaches to meet the needs of interested players.

While the rapid growth of youth rugby is a recent development in Utah, men's rugby has been around for some time in various forms. Currently, Utah State, Weber State, Dixie, SLCC and UVU all have college men's teams. After a year of reorganization, the Utes are back with an elite-level college team ranking in the top 10. BYU is returning from its third national title hoping for a fourth this year.

There has been steady growth in women's rugby in college as well as high school. BYU, USU and UVU have women's teams among others. It is notable that the women's rules for the game are the same as men's. There are no watered down contact rules or other modifications. There are youth programs offered from the age of 6 and up for girls in Utah.

The spring season for youth rugby is well underway with playoffs and finals scheduled for the second and third weeks of May. The college-level Varsity Cup final is set to take place on May 3 at Rio Tinto Stadium between BYU and Cal. On any Saturday through the middle of May, there is a game to be found from St. George to Logan. Fort Utah Park in Provo, Murray Rugby Park, Dimple Dell Rec Center, South Jordan soccer complex and Burgess Park in Alpine all regularly have games on Saturday as well as weekdays (see utahyouthrugby.org for schedules). There is no admission fee, and all are welcome to come watch what may be confusing at first to the casual observer but what is certain to be one of the most exciting and fun Utah traditions in the making.

Speaking of which, in the opening match of the 2014 season I watched a girls team warm up to play another girls team, which is new this year. The new team had several girls over 6 feet and 250 pounds. The older team knew a bit more rugby but looked to be hopelessly mismatched in every position as far as size and strength. The fear was plain to see on faces of the smaller team as they prepared for the game, but the girls left the field with bumps and bruises as well as smiles in a 24-0 win for the smaller scrappy girls. The tackle of the game happened when a 100-pound winger ran right up and smacked a girl twice her size. "No surrender" indeed.

Matt Kanenwisher is a nurse, a former elected official, a rugby coach and a dad. Contact him at matt.kanenwisher@gmail.com.

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