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The Huns, the Herd, the Barbarians

Austin Herd (Norma Salinas/Austin Herd)

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The Huns, the Herd, the Barbarians

Rugby sets out to conquer America

If you were trying to pick a sport that wouldn’t land your child on a stretcher, you might not think of rugby. But a belief that rugby is safer than football is helping the sport grow.

Julie Nicholson is an Austin mom who put her son in rugby in part because she heard it was safer than football—less plagued by controversy over CTE, a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries.

Her son, Connor, 16, ended up tearing his shoulder on the rugby field and needing surgery.

Nevertheless, Julie, who knew next to nothing about rugby just a few years ago, is now quite the fan. Undeterred by the injury, she sent her son back out to play: “It was rough to let him go back out there. But it’s part of the game.”

I caught up with her on a recent Saturday at a youth rugby event in Round Rock, Texas. Sporting a rugby hat and manning a recruiting tent for a local club, she told me, “What made me feel a lot better about rugby is they learn how to tackle properly, they’re not going in with their head, and they’re more leading with their shoulders.”

The technique that she’s describing, formerly a key distinctive of rugby, has begun to influence American football and has even been adopted by some professional teams, most notably the Seattle Seahawks.

“You hear a lot more about rugby on the NFL these days when they say, ‘there’s a scrum,’ or they talk about the ‘rugby punt’—those words are starting to make their way into American football,” says Richard Osborn, owner of the Austin Herd, a recently established professional rugby team.

Scott Constable, the director of Huns Youth Rugby, says it’s not uncommon for Texas high-school football coaches to recruit rugby players: “The football coaches usually like the rugby players because they know how to tackle and they start seeking contact.”

The games are similar in many respects: Players score “tries” instead of touchdowns, and they can kick a “drop goal” that’s similar to a field goal. But the play is more continuous, and there are 15 players per side.

Rugby players don’t wear pads, except sometimes a thin “scrum cap” designed to prevent a condition called cauliflower ear. Proponents say the absence of pads actually reduces the risk of injury. Paul McCartney, a Round Rock chiropractor who coaches a high-school select team, explains that hits are generally softer in rugby because players don’t want to injure themselves: “The contact is controlled, and there are certain rules that protect the players from getting injuries.”

Allan Lester is the father of two boys introduced to the sport by McCartney, their chiropractor. Both boys played football as well. “My older son had a neck injury in football. When we went to the thoracic surgeon, we were asking him, could he play football again? He said, ‘Well, I don’t know about football.’”

The doctor was less worried about rugby, Lester recalls. “He said he sees more broken fingers than any other injury in rugby, because you get stepped on. But not a lot of neck injuries.”

Rugby’s elevation to Olympic status in 2016 has helped the sport grow. That’s how Nicholson’s son first learned of the sport. The launch of a professional league in 2018, Major League Rugby, also provided a boost.

The league has 12 teams in the United States and Canada and secured a TV deal with CBS. But unlike, say, Ultimate Fighting or the short-lived XFL (“Extreme Football”), Major League Rugby is not the product of outside money or media hype.

It’s instead a natural outgrowth of club-level rugby, which is competitive but not professional. Scattered throughout the country, club teams tend to have martial, wild-sounding names like the Norsemen, the Saracens, or the Barbarians (a name held by at least three American clubs).

Major League Rugby’s 2020 regular season will run from February through May, with playoffs and a final taking place in June.