Come On and Join the Scrum 4

K.C. Blues Rugby Squad Stokes Interest in Sport that isn’t for the Faint of Heart

They’ve heard it all. The jokes about how the only way to catch a rugby game is by watching a late-night match on a down-the-dial cable channel. Then there’s the one that says the best way to give blood is to find a local rugby club and join the scrum. Or, the head shaking of naysayers who look at the non-stop running and bone-crunching hits and think, “Not on your life.”

But the wincing reactions of those who don’t quite get the allure of non-stop running, tackling and the occasional broken nose or teeth haven’t stopped growing legions of rugby players in the Kansas City area and across the U.S. Kansas City has its own club, the Kansas City Blues, which practices and plays at the Sporting Kansas City Training Facility at Swope Soccer Village. The connection with the Major League Soccer franchise is drawing new fans to the sport.

“The affiliation with Sporting (Kansas City) has been a huge growth driver for us,” says Peter Kowalski, a technology company regional sales director from Roeland Park, who played 12 years for the Blues and now sits on the club’s executive board and helps coach young players in high school. “The professional-level facilities have enabled us to create a high performance environment that attracts and retains athletes and coaches that aspire to be the best. It’s helped strengthen the Club’s winning culture in a new generation of athletes, and has given us the opportunity to grow our ‘brand’ as a viable sport and entertainment option for both or former players and ‘old boy’ alumni, as well as fans that are new to the sport or to the Blues.”

A quick primer: Traditional rugby finds two teams — 15 players on each side, all without padding — contesting an oval ball that’s carried, kicked or passed sideways or backwards hand-to-hand. Points are scored when the ball is placed (“grounded”) behind the opponents’ goal line. It can also be kicked over the crossbar of the opponents’ goal.

Those masses of snarling humanity known as “scrums” develop after an infraction and see opposing players packed tightly against each other in an effort to get possession of the ball. Once a player has possession, he or she basically becomes a tackle target in a way that makes football look like a Sunday picnic.

“The contact areas are more controlled than in football, though, because the lack of padding forces most players to use proper tackling technique,” Kowalski says. “The result is a tackle or a ‘ruck’ more resembling a fast wrestling takedown than a big football hit.

“Rugby is a very physical sport, there’s no way around that. In addition to the contact, the fitness levels required to play the game well make rugby a very tough sport.”

Tough, for sure. Yet it’s becoming one of America’s fastest-growing sports. Rugby is being introduced to players and fans at a much earlier age. Twenty years ago, Kowalski says, there were very few states with high school programs in the U.S., and even fewer opportunities for children to play the sport. Most players started in college or with a club — men’s and women’s — after college.

Today, there are youth programs in many states, state-based high school leagues crowning state champions in most states and a rapidly expanding list of collegiate programs offering rugby scholarships. Adult men’s and women’s teams play at varying levels throughout the country. Elite-level rugby can be seen on major networks. In 2016, Rugby Sevens — a variation in which teams of seven players compete in shorter matches — will be part of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“It’s truly a global game that provides opportunities for players and fans to see the world through an abundance of opportunities to play or watch the sport overseas – and to connect with people from all of the diverse nations and cultures who share a passion for rugby.”

The Blues are averaging close to 200 paying spectators at home matches at Swope. A 2104 match against an Australian team drew more than 1,200 fans.

Current and former Blues players work to stoke interest in rugby in and around Kansas City. Former Blues players Eric Masterson and Tim Kluempers started Heartland Youth Rugby, which saw more than 160 kids participating in flag rugby league this spring. Current and former Blues players are on rugby coaching staffs at six Kansas City-area high school rugby programs, and the team runs a rugby academy during the summer for high school and college boys and girls.

Team members are also active in the community, raising money for health causes and for a Christmas-gift program for underprivileged families.

“It’s helped us be more than just a rugby team that trains together and plays together,” Kowalski says. “The Blues are committed to growing the game of rugby, but we’re also committed to using our network of caring and committed players and members to try and make Kansas City a better place to live.”

Still, is it for everybody? Maybe. Maybe not. But Kowalski makes a great case: Rugby builds character, he says, since it demands a commitment to fitness and mental toughness. It rewards hard work and places a premium on a team-first ideal.

“With 15 players on the field on each team, it’s difficult for one ‘star’ to dominate a game. The winner is usually the team that develops a good game plan and works well together in executing it.”

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