Rugby evolves, grows in South Carolina as big match comes to Charleston
College football will be off and running soon, to the collective relief of pigskin-deprived fans everywhere.
Gates at Blackbaud Stadium open at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. An exhibition “old boys” match between the U.S. and Canada starts at 3 p.m. Main event is at 6:30. Tickets range from $15 to $100. Go to usarugby.org
The game will be carried live on Universal Sports via DIRECTV (channel 625) and DISH Network (channel 402).
Players: 15 per side, made up of 8 forwards known as “the pack” (think big linemen and tight ends in football); and 7 backs (think a quarterback, running backs and wide receivers). A speedier 7-man version will be part of the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro.
Basic rules: Forward passes are illegal, as is knocking the ball forward, even accidentally. Players can advance the ball either by running with it or kicking it. Play is stopped only for infractions, penalties or injuries.
Scoring: The equivalent of touchdown is called a “try” and is worth 5 points. The point-after kick is worth 2 points. Penalty kicks and open-field dropkicks are worth 3 points each.
Match time: 40 minutes halves.
Top teams: The International Rugby Board's top 5 teams as of Aug. 5 were No. 1 New Zealand, followed by South Africa; Australia, England and France.
Scrum: Short for scrimmage, it is a way of resuming play. It involves the 8 forwards binding together in three rows and interlocking with the other team's forwards.
Ruck: When at least 1 player from each side bind onto each other with the ball on the ground between them, typically after a tackle.
Maul: When a player carrying the ball is held by one or more opponents.
Lineout: How the ball is put back into play after going out of bounds. It's akin to a jump ball in basketball. The team that didn't cause the ball to go out of bounds puts it back in play.
Pitch or paddock: The playing field. A true rugby pitch measures about 122 yards by 74 yards.
But rugby, the gridiron's more primitive and less-padded forerunner, will be first to take the field in South Carolina this year.
The main event takes place at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Blackbaud Stadium, where the best talent that the United States has to offer takes on Canada's national team.
They've been there before. The first and last time the U.S.A. Eagles (currently ranked 18th in the world) and the Maple Leafs (No. 15) squared off in South Carolina was July 2009 on Daniel Island. The American side prevailed 12-6 before about 3,800 fans.
The stakes are high this time around. The match is part of the qualifying process for a coveted spot in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the sport's quadrennial holy grail, to be held in England and Wales.
Organizers estimate that the economic punch from this weekend's international competition and associated events at around $3 million. Aside from local rugby players and supporters, spectators are expected to trek to the Lowcountry from Canada and other locales.
“A couple of buddies from Chattanooga and I are planning on going,” fan Andrew Klaehn posted on Facebook recently.
Mike Perkins, who works in the local defense contracting industry, will be in the stands as well. The president of the 40-year-old Charleston Outlaws rugby club said he expects a bigger turnout compared with the 2009 game, which fell on the July Fourth holiday.
“USA Rugby has really allocated some resources to get the word out,” Perkins said, referring to the sport's U.S. governing body. “And we're really pushing it from a grass-roots level here.”
Also, since the two sides last met, rugby has continued to blossom at the local level, expanding the potential spectator base.
“We've seen the game grow exponentially here,” Perkins said.
The origins of the onetime cult sport are traced to England in 1823 at Rugby School.
Marine Corps Lt. Col. Bill Bell, who played as a cadet at The Citadel in 1990s and is now the military school's head coach, said local collegiate teams began to form right around the time the Outlaws ran on the pitch for the first time in 1973.
“It's growing,” he said.
For years, the United States was considered a rugby also-ran, but its profile is rising, as is participation. The reasons include the fact that the game has been getting more U.S. television coverage, Bell said.
Locally, women's rugby has been gaining steam. The Charleston Blockade said it's one of only about two dozen gay-oriented clubs nationwide.
But the real growth is coming from the high school set, Bell said. South Carolina now fields about 15 youth clubs. Locally, intramural squads represent Stall High School, Fort Dorchester High School, Wando High School and Charleston School of the Arts.
“What we saw if we wanted to improve the level of the game for colleges and for the adult teams that we needed to look at ways to expand youth rugby,” said Bell, one of key local organizers of the Saturday's match.
The effort has paid off, he said.
“More and more kids have been interested, and more and more parents have been fired up about it, and we've had more opportunity to grow the game,” Bell said
Rugby South Carolina, the coordinator of the state's youth leagues, said it's offering an inclusive alternative for teens who want to play organized sports. Leigh Knotts of the Columbia-based group expects two to three new clubs to join the roster when the 2014 season starts next spring.
“In my opinion, what lit the fuse for youth rugby is that if you come out, you play. You come out and you put in the effort, you play,” Knotts said.
The game has evolved as it has attracted a broader base of participants. For instance, it's been shedding its longtime image as “a hooligan's sport played by gentlemen.” While rugby is still a bruising, full-contact game, the once-bawdy, post-match festivities tend to be tamer than they were a couple of decades ago.
“It's less about beer ... and singing crazy songs and those other things you hear about,” said former player Baron Hanson, whose Charleston company RedBaron is handling some of the marketing for the U.S.-Canada match.
Money is one factor. As rugby has become more diverse and mainstream, it's attracted a more sophisticated base of sponsors, Hanson said.
“It's becoming a lot more serious. ... It's been an interesting tipping point,” he said.
What hasn't changed is what players and supporters describe as two of rugby's biggest draws: an unusually strong sense of sportsmanship and camaraderie.
Perkins of the Charleston Outlaws caught the rugby bug in college, like many players who have embraced the sport. He was studying in New Hampshire at a school with no football team.
“One of my buddies got me hooked on it,” Perkins said. “I've been playing it for 22 years now.”
He recalled getting in touch with a local club in Augusta when he was relocating to that area years ago. He had a new set of friends within two weeks.
“Guys were helping me move. ... You're not going to get that kind of bond outside the military,” he said.
It's a point that Perkins shares with youngsters who are taking up rugby. He tells them he has “22 years' worth of numbers” of acquaintances he can call on.
“And every one of them will answer the phone,” Perkins said.
John McDermott can be reached at 937-5572.