Youth rugby arrives in Bristol

BRISTOL — Scrum. Ruck. Lineout. Try zone. Maul. Knock on. Drop goal. Grubber.
Bristol residents might want to brush up on their rugby lingo, because the centuries-old sport is coming to town.
The Bristol Recreation Department and the Hub Teen Center are joining forces to field a team that will compete in a league run by the Vermont Youth Rugby Association. Bolton Littlefield of the Hub is spearheading the effort.
Littlefield, who plays rugby in an adult league, said the impetus for the co-ed team came from a conversation with a fellow player.
“I was talking to a teammate about how a lot of kids at the teen center had approached me about potentially playing rugby,” Littlefield said. “She told me she was a representative from the Vermont Youth Rugby Association and that she would be able to help me orchestrate a team.”
The Vermont Youth Rugby Association started with a team from Essex in 1997 and has grown to include a dozen teams from Colchester to Rutland.Littlefield recently held an informational meeting that 10 teens attended. He said he believes more are interested in joining.
“I’m hoping there will be a snowball effect, that interest will grow and grow, and that people who are at practices will bring friends,” Littlefield said. “Hopefully, through that process, we’ll have a full team of at least 15.”
Littlefield plans to hold practices three days a week to get the team in top form for the season opener at the end of the month. Playoffs start in early June.
Littlefield took up rugby as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Geneseo. This is his first time coaching the sport.
He said he’ll focus on teaching kids the rules of rugby, and how to play the game safely. While the basic rules of the game are simple — don’t pass the ball forward and tackle cleanly — Littlefield said the smaller rules take years to learn.
“There are a few simple big rules, and there are more ‘red tape’ sort of rules,” Littlefield said. “It’s a common sentiment on rugby teams that even after you’ve been playing for two years, you’re still kind of learning about things, because there are rugby laws that aren’t common practice.”
Rugby is played with either seven, 10 or 15 players per side. Bolton said it is much harder to play with fewer players, because each player has to cover more of the field.
Points are scored by running the ball into the in-goal area (much like a touchdown in football), or by drop kicking the ball through a set of uprights (similar to a field goal in football).
The provenance of rugby, much like baseball, is murky. Its roots can be traced to 19th-century England, where the laws of the game were first codified in 1845.
In the century and a half since, the sport spread throughout the British Empire. The sport remains popular in Commonwealth nations (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have won the most World Cup titles) and is the official sport of several nations.
The sport was once popular in the United States — the U.S. won the gold medal in rugby in the 1920 and 1924 Summer Olympics — but declined afterwards.
In recent years, the sport has made a comeback. USA Rugby, the sport’s governing body in this country, boasts 98,000 members, and rugby has become a popular sport at colleges at both the club and varsity level.
Littlefield said a lot of the fear about the dangers of rugby is due to a misunderstanding of how the game is played.
“I think a lot of people who say that it’s dangerous haven’t necessarily watched a rugby game,” Littlefield said.
While the lack of padding, as compared to football, makes rugby players (they’re called ruggers) seem crazy to the casual viewer, Littlefield said this absence of protection encourages players to be more careful.
“The lack of padding makes people more aware that they are mere mortals, and they tackle safely in an effort to preserve their own bodily integrity,” Littlefield said.
He added that the character of the game means that players care about the safety of their teammates as well as opponents.
“There’s a really big sense of community in rugby,” Littlefield said. “We aim to hit hard, but we don’t aim to hurt, and I think there’s a profound difference between those things.”
Littlefield said an additional difference between football and rugby is that in rugby only the person with the ball can be hit or tackled.
“There’s only one tackle at once, and that’s rooted in the knowledge of what a safe tackle is, and also what a safe fall is,” Littlefield said.
In rugby, player safety is the paramount concern for both coaches and referees, Littlefield added.
“Every coach I’ve ever met strives, beyond all else, to make sure people know how to tackle and fall safely,” Littlefield said. “Even in ref 101 courses they say, ‘If it looks unsafe, blow the whistle.’”
Littlefield and Darla Senecal of the Bristol Recreation Department fielded questions about the safety of the sport at the Bristol selectboard meeting Monday.
Senecal said that the sport, if played correctly, is safe. She said she spoke with Mary Stetson, the athletic director at Mount Abraham Union High School, and also studied research done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The (CDC) also has a lot of information to send to parents,” Senecal said. “It gives us a lot of resources — this is good information for all of our coaches to have.”
Ernie Senecal, who has coached many different sports and played rugby while in college, said he supported the creation of a team, because it provides another avenue for kids to get active.
“I talked to some of the kids who play football,” Ernie Senecal said. “If they’re not playing a sport now, it’s a great way to get in shape.”
Ernie Senecal said that despite its violent image in the minds of many, rugby is a safe sport when children are taught appropriate techniques.
“If you watch world-class rugby, there is hardly any contact, unlike football,” Ernie Senecal said. “We used to say it’s a barbaric sport played by gentlemen.”
Ernie Senecal said that rugby teaches athletes to play safer and smarter in other sports.
“It does teach you how to keep your head up and avoid tackles. Otherwise you’re going to get hurt,” Ernie Senecal said. “That translates to football, soccer, basketball and even baseball.”
Town administrator Bill Bryant agreed that Ernie’s word about the safety of the sport could be trusted.
“I can vouch for Ernie’s non-violent approach to sports. We deer-hunted for three years and he never fired a shot,” Bryant said, drawing laughter from those in attendance.
Littlefield said he hopes rugby will provide an opportunity for kids to connect with their community, stay in shape and have fun.
“I want this to be an outlet for youth in the area,” Littlefield said. “I want people to be able to find community and inclusion and also strength through the club.”
While the inaugural season could be bumpy, Littlefield said there is no reason a Bristol team could not hold its own sooner or later.
“I want for us to in the future be a competitive presence in the league,” Littlefield said.
Darla Senecal told the selectboard that this program will probably take a few years to build up if it is to be successful.
“Rarely do we have 40 kids come out for a program the first year,” Senecal said. “We look at this as something that can definitely grow.”
All kids ages 14-19 are encouraged to give the sport a try. Those who would like more information may call Littlefield at the Hub at 453-3678.
SARAH MULLER COMPLETES a tackling drill with her Bristol Recreation Department and Hub Teen Center rugby team after school Monday afternoon.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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