By Sue Botos
When most people in the United States think of rugby, they probably conjure up thoughts of a shirt style with stripes and a white collar, or maybe a fiercely physical game featuring players piled up in a “scrum.”
But some Rocky River residents want to introduce more of the community to the growing sport, which they say is “the next lacrosse.”
John Zuercher, a youth rugby coach, along with high school teacher John McKenna, made a presentation to the school board at its November meeting, requesting the board’s support for the establishment of a rugby team for high school age students.
Currently, a rugby program is offered to Rocky River students in grades three through eight. Zuercher explained that it is governed by Ohio Rugby, independent of the school district and the city recreation department. “This program has a large number of kids, but is the only one without a high school (level) team,” he said. Players participating on similar youth teams in Lakewood and Avon, for example, have the chance to play on their high schools’ club teams, Zuercher noted.
“We had nine eighth-graders and 17 seventh-graders last year. They asked about starting a high school team,” Zuercher told the board.
Varying levels of competition are offered to Rocky River students, beginning with co-ed, no-contact “flag” teams for younger players, and progressing to “tackle” for boys in seventh and eighth grade. If enough girls express interest, he said tackle is an option for older girls. Zuercher further explained that ninth- through 12th-graders can participate on teams designated as high school varsity, high school club, or community-based. He said backers had chosen the community option, independent of the recreation department, to get the program off the ground.
“In a few years we hope to come back to you and ask for this to be a club sport,” he told the board.
McKenna presented the board with five requests from the rugby backers. “We were wondering if it was possible to use the high school field for a game or two,” he asked the board, explaining that, right now, teams play in city parks.
In addition, McKenna said the group wanted to adopt a modified version of the high school’s Pirate logo, which would accent the name “Pirates Rugby Club.” Zuercher explained that the city name would not be a part of the team identity so it would not be mistaken as being associated with the schools. “We talked with (athletics director) Mark Wagner, and he was concerned with the use of the name,” he said.
The group also asked that the district allow team information to be distributed in the schools, and that the board consider having Ohio Rugby-sanctioned coaches come to physical education classes to offer introductory lessons.
“Ohio Rugby would supply the coaches to explain passing and running with no tackling,” Zuercher noted.
St. Ignatius High School rugby coach Dan Arbezniku has been advising the Rocky River group. He also attended the school board meeting, indicating that his group, at the varsity level, represents the “evolution in full.”
“Originally, the school wanted nothing to do with us. There was a perceived notion about what rugby is … but eventually we won them over,” said Arbezniku, who has coached at St. Ignatius for 10 years. He also dispelled the perceived violence of the sport.
“In 10 years, three broken arms and a broken nose have been the most serious injuries we’ve had.” He added that, unlike football, rugby tackles involve the shoulder rather than the head, and require a player to “wrap” the opponent, just run into him.
Zuercher added that students of any size can play the sport. He told the board that current team members include the middle school football quaterback, wrestlers and others who have never played another sport.
The group hopes to field a high school team this spring, and has already chosen a coach, Eamon Curry.
School board member Jay Milano asked that the rugby backers give a list of requests and concerns to the board, which will then meet with Wagner. “Then we’ll discuss this piece by piece,” he stated.