Passion, Camaraderie Fuel Locals' Affair with Rugby
Steeped in tradition, renowned for its gritty athletes and synonymous with the unbridled passion of its supporters, rugby has been a dominant international sport since its inception more than 100 years ago.
The sport embellishes the concept of tough, rugged athletes to the point that rugby players become tainted with notions of being barbaric ruffians. This stigma is far from the truth, and while the sport is not for the faint of heart, rugby players emit a strong passion for the game and a sense of camaraderie that would be difficult to match.
It is truly a sport in which the excitement of the game coupled with the joyous atmosphere of those involved promotes a positive obsession for all.
For the past seven years, rugby has been on offer in Moore County, with the members of Southern Pines Rugby Club embarking on matches throughout the southern United States. The team was formed as former players sought to reignite their rugby careers of yesteryear and fuel a passion for the sport. Other players were looking to open a new chapter in their lives.
Founding member Dr. Todd Zeh of Zeh Chiropractic built the roots of the local team when discovering rugby players hidden in all corners of Moore County.
"I had played for many years, starting as a student at Palmer College of Chiropractic and then onto club rugby in Pennsylvania and Charlotte," said Zeh. "It was no surprise to see a handful of old ruggers surface once the word started to spread."
Zeh and Patrick O'Donnell, a local publican and former college rugby player, started the recruitment process.
"We found several internationals living right here in Moore County who were originally from rugby-playing countries," said Zeh. "This certainly added some experience to the team; however, it was the emergence and interest of locals that really provided the backbone of the team. We had men show up with little to no experience. The common drive for all of the players was to find something new and different in town to be a part of. There isn't really a lot on offer in the way of team sports for adults in our local area."
"We have built a strong, positive reputation in circles across rugby clubs in North Carolina and neighboring states," said O'Donnell, proprietor of O'Donnell's Pub in Southern Pines. "Celebrating the sport and enjoying shared enthusiasm for the game with other teams comes hand-in-hand with rugby. We have had many teams who have ventured to Southern Pines to engage in a game who have enjoyed their visit immensely. I see these players and their friends return to the area to visit when there wasn't a game to play."
New players joining the Southern Pines rugby team with little to no experience would soon develop their own passion for the game and learn of the decorated history of rugby.
Records of the first rugby games date back to the early 1800s, when a young English boy, William Web Ellis, became frustrated with his school's soccer game, picked up the ball and ran with it. That school was Rugby School, in the town of Rugby, Warwickshire, in England's midwest. Ellis' bold and brash decision to defy the rules of his school's then-chosen sport would set alight the growth of a new sport.
Variations of this new sport grew quickly in Rugby School and neighboring schools, and by 1870 the first Rugby Football Union was established. Former students of rugby-playing schools had scratched together variations of rules, and to meet the needs of growing rugby clubs, the first organized union was formed. Members of 21 formed clubs met at a London restaurant to determine the first sanctioning body and its organizing committee.
Legends tell of one team representative from the rugby club Wasps who was absent from the inaugural meeting. The representative ventured into the wrong establishment and, while waiting for the remaining members, became far too inebriated to find the correct location. Perhaps the actions of the Wasps player would earmark many rugby traditions to develop.
By the end of the 1800s, rugby was being played by clubs established not only through its home in the United Kingdom, but into parts of Europe, the United States and Australia. The International Rugby Football Board, later to become the International Rugby Board (IRB), had been established, and rugby had been chosen as a sport for the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris. The International Olympic Committee president, Pierre de Coubertin, had recognized the growth in popularity of rugby and sought to develop the modern Olympics by including the popular sport.
The bold move worked, as rugby matches drew more spectators than any other Olympic sport on offer. It would be removed from the Olympic program after the 1924 Olympics. Of the four gold medals offered for rugby at the Olympics, the United States won two (1900 and 1924). Rugby will return to the Olympics in 2016 for the XXXI Olympiad in Brazil.
Rugby in the United States never grew to its full potential. A lack of media exposure failed to showcase the gold medal efforts of the U.S. Olympic rugby team. The sport's popularity lost out to growing American sports baseball, basketball and American football, ironically a derivative of rugby. While rugby-playing nations developed the fundamentals of playing the game, the growth of the sport all but died in the United States. It wasn't until the 1960s that a resurgence of the sport was seen, particularly in the West, and American rugby would join the IRU.
Venturing into any rugby club in any rugby-playing nation, the passion and fundamentals of rugby are the same. While high-level professional clubs seen in parts of Europe or throughout countries in the southern hemisphere are well-funded and play the game at its highest level, local teams in smaller communities seem to hold true to the traditions and emotional values of the sport.
The camaraderie among players builds strong social networks, and while opposing teams will engage in hard-fought matches, the final whistle signaling the end of the game unites all players into a celebration of the day's activities. Tales of hard tackles and star performances are shared and laughed about, normally during refreshing glasses of amber ale.
Rugby traditions become an integral part of the post-match celebrations. Vociferous rugby songs known by teams worldwide are sung and enjoyed in the celebratory spirit of the game. Teams hosting matches will ensure their visiting opponents are well cared for and are welcomed like a long-lost relative.
Many of rugby's traditions have been adopted by Southern Pines Rugby during the course of its growth. A sprinkling of international players molded into the team has aided in the team's development.
Gareth Williams, originally from Wales, came to the Sandhills in 2002 as a Pinehurst Resort greenskeeper intern. Williams is now a valuable member of the Southern Pines team, sharing his wealth of knowledge and experience with the team. Williams also served as the coach of the now-defunct high school team.
The team has also welcomed players from England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Not to be outdone are the locals, who make up the crux of the team. Biologist Steve Anchor, from the Sandhills Ecological Institute, is an original member of the team. Never having played or seen a rugby match, Anchor has become one of the more experienced and standout players on the team. Anchor now serves as team captain and understands the allure that rugby players possess.
"For any new person into the area or somebody just looking for something to be involved with, rugby certainly has a draw," explained Anchor. "I've never come across a sport that offers so much more than just the athletic side. Our team has a strong unity off the rugby field and often get involved in other actives, whether that be charity work or just helping out a member of our team."
Age is also no barrier when it comes to rugby. The veteran on the team, 46-year-old Tim Landreth, brought to the team a wealth of rugby knowledge to share and educate new players. Equaling Landreth in enthusiasm for the game is 17-year-old Jake Comte. Now in his second season with Southern Pines Rugby, Comte has impressed with his speed and determination to learn the game. Quality veteran players, the likes of Landreth, help new players to the team learn the ins and outs of rugby.
The Southern Pines Rugby team will join, for the first time, the statewide competition in 2010. The team will travel across the state during the spring season with a goal to become Division III state champions in their first outing.
After a very successful 2009 season, the team looks to be in great shape to perform well. Significant wins during 2009 included a hard-fought victory over the experienced Cape Fear team from Wilmington, 43-39, and a 15-5 win over fierce rivals Fort Bragg. However, the highlight of the year was the Asheville Sevens tournament, a modified version of the game, where Southern Pines took home the championship trophy.
Southern Pines Rugby welcomes all interested players and spectators. Sponsorship inquiries are also welcomed with open arms as the team provides its own funding. No level of experience is needed; all interested are welcomed. Contact Zeh at (910) 246-0606 for details on joining the team.
SPRC 2010 Schedule
Feb. 13 Triad
Feb. 20 @Asheville
Feb. 27 Belmont
March 6 @Triad
March 20 Asheville
March 27 @Belmont
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