Blood, sweat and finesse
Tri-City rugby teams hit ground running
Lance Wojcik started playing rugby when he was 30. His son Carson Bollinger will be playing in his second rugby season this spring, at the ripe age of nine.
Young or old, rugby is a sport for all ages in the western suburbs. With the spring season starting, children, teens and adults are preparing take to the field, form a ruck and when needed, scrum down.
“It’s definitely among the fastest growing sports in America,” Wojcik said.
At age 38 he plays for the Fox Valley Maoris, a men’s club who’s members range in age from late teens to well into the 40s. In addition to playing the sport Wojcik is a youth coaches for the Predators Rugby Club. The youth rugby club includes middle school and high school boys from the Tri-Cities as well as neighboring suburbs.
At the youth level, the clubs focus on building skills and helping players understand the game, from rules on the field to its history and traditions.
“We want to promote the sport and get the kids to have fun,” Wojcik said.
If the word rugby stirs up images of brutes and an unpadded version of American football, think again said Ryan Crawford. He grew up in St. Charles and began playing rugby his freshmen year of high school for the Predators, which was at the time called the St. Charles High School Rugby Club.
“Rugby has really changed through the years,” Crawford said. “It's more than a contact sport, there’s finesse. There’s much more control.”
Crawford played through his high school years as well and on the rugby club at Eastern Illinois University. Since graduating he’s moved close to his home town and he plays for the Fox Valley Maoris.
At 29, Crawford said he enjoys staying active with a sport he’s grown up playing.
“Even though we’re a local team we’re still playing to compete at the national level,” he said.
Rugby is played with two teams of 15 players each. The object is to move the ball into the goal through passing or kicking. The ball can be passed laterally or backward. For the adults, the game is played in two, 40 minute halves with a 10 minute half time, while the high school players have two 35 minute halves.
The sport was created when a player for a school soccer team in Rugby, England decided to pick up the ball and run. That was in 1823. American Football has its roots in rugby. But where American Football has body crushing tackling, a rugby tackle is less crushing and it doesn’t stop the play.
“It may look really rough, but it really is a finesse sport,” said Pat Riley, a former rugby player and youth rugby coach.
Riley played soccer through his college years at Auburn University and said his years playing and training in soccer made him into a fantastic rugby player. He started playing rugby while home on summer break with friends in St. Charles. His father was a founding player with the Fox Valley Maoris in the late 1970s.
Riley said he’s not playing much rugby these days, but stays busy coaching for the Predators.
“It’s such a dynamic team sport,” Riley said. “If you have a super star it’s not going to get you anywhere without support from the teammates.”
That teamwork extends beyond the game. When the final game whistle blows both sides sit down for a meal provided by the home team. It’s a camaraderie that keeps the rugby community connected.
“After banging heads on the field you sit down and feed the visiting team,” said Dan “Doc” Watson, coach and administrator for the Batavia High School Rugby Club.
Watson started playing as a student at the University of Illinois and went on to play with the Chicago Lions as well as a Midwest team. All three of his sons have played with the Batavia high school club and his two older sons continue to play with rugby clubs at their colleges.
Watson said rugby is a great sport for conditioning.
“I would like to see more schools embrace the sport because you give more kids the opportunity to be active in a sport.”
The number of rugby will likely continue to grow as the sport returns to the Summer Olympics in 2016.
And it’s not just the boys enjoying rugby. The Predators Rugby Club has divisions for girls and for women there is the Fox Valley Vixens.
College student Hayley Collins of Winfield is a board member and player for the Fox Valley Vixens. She said the team includes high school and college students as well as women with full-time jobs and children.
“Rugby is a lifestyle sport, it never really ends,” said Jay Crawford.
When it comes to rugby in the Fox Valley area, Jay Crawford is a person to know. The St. Charles resident played rugby with the Chicago Blaze, the Chicago Lions as well as several international teams. Today, he serves as president of the Fox Valley Maoris and director of operations for Predator Rugby Club.
“We’re always looking for new players,” he said. “Rugby is the ideal sport for every size. We need small and quick, big and tall.”