It may very well be one of Columbus’ best-kept athletic secrets. And you’re probably a stone’s throw from someone who’s played it.
“Rugby makes the world tiny. It’s not even six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” said Steve Landes, who helms the Division Three men’s rugby club, Columbus Castaways. “But a lot of folks still don’t know that rugby is here. The problem seems to be that people who have been exposed would play if they knew it was available.”
“There’s a place for someone who’s never seen a rugby ball and those who are elite,” Landes said. “There’s a post for anyone.”
Men have the option of the Columbus Rugby Club, Columbus Castaways and the LGBT-friendly Columbus Coyotes. For the ladies, the Scioto Valley Women’s Rugby Club is your squad, also coached by Landes. For college athletes, The Ohio State University fields competitive teams for both men and women.
“[Rugby] has grown quite a bit,” said former Ohio State rugby stand-out Corey Allenbach, who was a 2002 All-American and toured with the All-American team in South Africa. There were only a handful of teams for high schools and clubs across the state, and now there are several in town, he said.
In fact, it was rugby competition that helped elevate one unique player to Ohio State, and then, the National Football League.
“The professionalism of playing on the national team at such a young age got me prepared to play Division I football, from a professionalism standpoint,” said Nate Ebner, 25, of the New England Patriots, listed on the team site as third line safety on its unofficial depth chart.
Ebner earned a spot on both the U19 U.S. Junior National team in 2007 and again on the U20 team in 2008. He was named the team’s Most Valuable Player in the International Rugby Board Junior World Cup in both years.
“That really helped me transition into playing football for a school like Ohio State,” said Ebner, who was a walk-on for the OSU football team in 2009 and later earned a scholarship. He continued to play rugby during his time at OSU, and played for the club rugby team in the USA Sevens Rugby Collegiate Championship Invitational at Crew Stadium in June of 2010.
“Playing against great athletes. Really getting the best competition. Anytime you’re competing against the best, that’s going to prepare you to play at a high level in any sport,” Ebner said.
But you don’t have to be international level—or have dreams of the NFL—to play in Columbus right now. Any of the clubs will take a newbie who needs to be taught the rules and basics, in addition to accepting elite athletes.
The only thing you need to know is how competitive you want to be, for purposes of enjoyment, cost and travel. The Columbus Rugby Club, a Division One club team, travels more extensively out of state and is a higher degree of competition.
“With Columbus Rugby, we’re more focused on playing high-level rugby and wanting to compete,” said President Dominic Pezzutti, noting that the club is social, as well. “There’s always going to be a social aspect of rugby; you have to have that. Rugby requires a lot of the players to be physically and mentally involved. It’s a battle.”
“You have to make sure the guy next to you is going to have your back. When you’re in that type of physical battle, you really need that support from your teammates and your brother. The social [element] allows you to let go mentally and physically.”
Physical, indeed. The nonstop action of rugby requires its players to be fit.
“The ball’s in play a ridiculously amount longer than American football. You’re moving all the time,” Landes said.
Landes said in any given game, which has the same goal as football—get it across the goal line—you may cover four miles of ground. You also tend to be up and down with your body as well as spending some time tackling, depending on your position. The ball is thrown laterally or forward and the action doesn’t stop unless there’s an infraction—which leads to the thing most everyone knows about rugby, the scrum.
“Most people associate the scrum as being a pile of bodies,” Landes said. “It’s a way to restart after a minor infraction. It’s the closest thing there is to a football snap.”
And that’s not all. When the ball touches Earth, you best be prepared to have your fightin’ gloves on.
“When the ball goes to the ground, there’s a ruck over the ball (like a wrestling match),” said Landes. “You also have to be able to handle a person. So, wrestlers and people who have experience with Judo, do well.”
Landes said a lot of mixed martial artists have also transitioned well into rugby.
“If you’ve wrestled or played soccer, I want you on my team,” Landes said. “The fitter you are, the more fun it is.”
Fun is something the Columbus Castaways, also a competitive club team who travels more in-state, offer up in post-game social activities.
“Most people, when they think of Rugby, they think it’s a keg of beer or some meathead in college—a big party sport. But, most rugby teams have moved away from that, we’re big on rugby family,” Landes said. “We’re a brotherhood; we use the word camaraderie a ton.”
The Columbus rugby family as a whole started at OSU in 1975. When the guys playing college rugby started to age out, they created the Scioto Valley Rugby Club, which eventually became one of two teams under the Columbus Rugby Club, along with the 7’s 1823 team. Because it was born from college competitors, it remained a highly competitive club.
The high cost of high competition led to the Columbus Castaways.
“There were a number of players who didn’t want to play D1,” Landes said. “It’s difficult; you have to pay your own way, traveling, maybe you don’t have a roster of 23.”
When the Castaways were created, they started in D4, as is required by USA Rugby, which splits the country into four regions, and then divisions within those regions, Landes said. The Castaways won the championship after just one year. The win qualified them to move into D3. This season was their first in D3, playing in the D3 Southern Conference, which fields games mostly in Ohio and Kentucky.
Columbus also entertains international play thanks to Tiger Rugby. Founded by head coach James Walker, the elite academy sends touring teams internationally including competitions in South Africa, Argentina and China. They also generate “representative players from USA, New Zealand, Kenya and England,” according to its website. In 2012, Tiger Rugby opened its first Olympic Development Academy, directed by Paul Holmes, who coaches 1823. Julie McCoy coaches the Tiger women’s club.
Ebner was in town Nov. 6 to visit Holmes and Tiger Rugby.
“I like what (Holmes’) is doing with the program and the kids and development. As a team they’re having a lot of success,” Ebner said. “I’ve known Paul since I was a youngster. I like to go up and chat with him and see how he’s doing.”
The depth of rugby in Central Ohio is undeniable.
“If you’re new to the game, or just looking for 35 buddies, send the Castaways an email,” Landes said. “But if you want information on any of the clubs, just head to their website and contact them directly. There’s something for everyone.”
Editor’s note: Steve Landes is an employee of 614 Media Group, and is the lone wolf hand-delivering our publications to you every month. He’s a stand-up guy, and once delivered magazines with a busted shoulder – a rugby injury.