By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
For the past seven years, Roger Howell has been trying to build up a high school rugby program in the Atlantic County area, and each year his squad has made steady progress. This spring, the Jersey Shore Sharks U19 team has its biggest and best roster ever, and the results are showing as the team has had a successful season so far and is on track to make the playoffs in a couple of weeks.
It hasn’t been easy to convince local high school athletes to come out and try the sport of rugby, and it’s been even harder to convince parents and high school coaches to let their sons and athletes try a sport that is foreign to most American sports fans, but is one of the most popular sports in the world. Howell said a lot of parents and coaches are worried about the risk of injury, but that’s mostly because they don’t really understand the game and the tackling techniques.
“It’s about 50-50,” Howell said of the response he’s gotten from local high school coaches in terms of allowing their athletes to compete in rugby. “What I did in the beginning of the year, along with my other coaches, is we created a letter and sent it to several of the high schools around here — to the athletic directors and tried to get it to all the coaches, basketball, football, wrestling. My son wrestles, so when we would go to wrestling matches I would talk to wrestling coaches about it, bring brochures to let them know what we are all about. Word of mouth is a big part of our recruiting, but also getting the information out (to athletic directors).
“It’s about a 50-percent response. Some coaches are absolutely against it and don’t want their kids playing it because they think it’s a dangerous sport,” added Howell, whose son, Grant, is a junior at Ocean City High School and also plays football and wrestles. “They bring along with them some prejudices from when they were in college themselves when the game was a little more loosely played and was a free-for-all. But now, it’s not like that at the college level. It’s a much more developed game.”
Howell said once the parents get a look at the game and how much their sons enjoy it, they usually buy in pretty quickly. And, unlike most high school coaches who don’t want parents hanging around their practices every day, Howell said he welcomes parent involvement. The more they understand about the sport, he said, the more they can get an appreciation for it.
“It’s a good group of athletes. I’m very pleased this year. The team has really expanded and I’m very happy about that. The more kids who come to the program, your practices can be more involved and techniques can be applied because you have more kids to actually run a full practice. We have the bodies, and that helps a lot,” Howell said. “Every single guy I’ve spoken to, every parent I’ve spoken to, they are all completely positive. They really enjoy it. It is definitely a test of an individual. At first, the parents are timid about it. They are not sure it’s something their kid should be doing, but once they come out and see it happen — and I invite them to come out to practice — I want them to see it happen because the game is alien to most Americans. I want them to see what their kids are doing in practice so they can follow it during the game. And they really get a kick out of it. I have had nothing but positive feedback from parents.”
The program continues to develop, and while the coaches are constantly trying to teach the nuances of the game, they’ve seen how some of the boys with experience have begun to emerge as leaders and develop those skills as well.
“Leadership percolates to the top. We have a couple of boys, my son included, who have some good knowledge and they are able to bring that knowledge to the kids who haven’t had a chance to play. They help bring up their knowledge base really quickly because they are able to tell them exactly what to do, and in doing so, it actually develops their own leadership qualities,” Howell said. “They get to lead and participate and it makes it a great experience for them. My son has really enjoyed this year more than others because of that. There are a lot of new players and they are learning quickly, and they are all good athletes. Every single one of these kids is a good athlete, which I’m very happy about.”
Rugby attracts all kinds of athletes, most notably football players and wrestlers because so many of the techniques transfer to those sports. It’s also attractive to soccer players because of the conditioning aspect. A rugby match is 80 minutes — two 40-minute halves — and there are no timeouts or stoppages of play. An athlete has to be in great condition to be a rugby player, and that’s why it’s become a popular offseason sport for football players.
“We have quite a few football players,” Howell said. “The grappling, though, is mostly akin to wrestling, and we have several wrestlers on the team. Of the 30 kids we have, about eight of them are wrestlers, which is a pretty good percentage. The game attracts certain individuals. Not all kids who are good athletes are going to be good at rugby. It takes a certain mindset to play. A kid who may be a really good running back in football may not transfer that to rugby because it’s more of a sport where you have to play both ways. It can be interesting.”
The future looks bright for the high school program, as Howell will only lose a handful of players to graduation. But, once they graduate, they are eligible to move up to the men’s program, the Jersey Shore Sharks Rugby Club, which plays on Saturdays in the spring and fall. The high school team plays on Sundays in the spring, and it’s next home game is Sunday, May 7 at 1 p.m. at Veterans Park in Galloway.
“I only have three seniors this year, so 27 players will be coming back next year if they are available, and that just makes my heart sing. Hopefully, they will stick around and bring some new players. If I can get 40-45 kids out here, we’ll have a heck of a ride for the next several years. My son graduates next year, but that doesn’t mean I won’t stay coaching. I think this program is going to grow in the next three to five years,” Howell said. “We’ll have a good athlete come out and enjoy it, then he’ll go back to his school and tell his buddy, ‘hey, come try this, you’re going to love it.’ And the next thing you know, I have another good athlete from the same school out there. It attracts their own kind, kids who are ready and willing to do something like this.”
Howell said even after his son graduates next year, he plans to continue coaching the team. It’s become the highlight of his spring weekends, he said.
“This energizes me,” Howell said. “I’m 61 years old and I wish I could be out there on the field with every one of these guys, every minute of every game. It really keeps me connected to the game.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN