Houston Rugby Takes A Giant Step Forward
By the time Brad Allen finished his first-half scoring run, the Houston Athletic Rugby Club had the game in the bag. Now they're headed to the first Sweet 16 playoff berth in club history.
"It's a really big deal," says club president Will Wornardt, who searched records dating to the inception of Houston rugby in the mid-1960s and couldn't find anything to suggest it has ever made it this far.
The United States doesn't have a professional rugby league. Houston, along with the club in Austin, plays in Division I, the second highest level of amateur competition. (No. 1 is called Super League.)
Allen is a field-engineer recruiter in Houston who played rugby at Ohio State. He scored the team's first try, then converted the kick himself -- and added a field goal -- to give the Bulls a 10-3 lead over the visiting Denver Highlanders. According to Allen, "our confidence soared" from there; the Bulls went on to a comfortable 24-15 win.
If the football term "touchdown" doesn't make sense, that's because it comes from the rugby try, in which a player must forcibly plant the ball in the end zone in order to score. While notably lacking the forward pass and any distinction between offensive and defensive players, rugby does also feature the scrum -- a big pile-up of each team's heaviest players -- in addition to unique elements of its notorious social side such as boot shoots and Zulu Warriors.
Saturday's game took place at the Westland YMCA, where team members previously moved out four tons of rebar and cement in order to put down a field and erect some goal posts. The festivities then carried over to the team bar, Ernie's on Banks, another long-standing rugby tradition.
But as the game becomes more popular and accessible in the US -- high schools such as St. Thomas and Strake now field teams -- some of that classic rugby debauchery is fading. Hazing and nudity are becoming less common, for instance, and Wornardt says he can't remember the last time he heard a rugby song. The Bulls, meanwhile, are averaging about 50 players per practice and also have a women's team.
Part of the club's newfound success can also be attributed to the influx of expats. HARC has player from New Zealand (the world rugby capitol), Australia, South Africa, England, Scotland and Ireland -- some naturalized, some not. A club can only have five foreign players on its roster.
Wornardt says the team relies heavily on British player-coach Carl Newman, who plays eight-man -- think a middle linebacker who can handle the ball -- and contributed several key plays to Saturday's win.
The Bulls travel to Austin on May 16 to face the Las Vegas Blackjacks.
The regular season, which started in late September, ends with the playoffs. The club then runs a summer touch league -- in which, according to Wornardt, "the skinny young guys run around in the heat, and we sit around with coolers and beers."
New players are welcome at practices, which are held on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7pm at the Westlake YMCA. Visit www.houstonrugby.org for more info.