Rugby, which is highly popular internationally and on both coasts in the United States has recently enjoyed a surge in popularity in The Woodlands area. Rugby began in The Woodlands at the YMCA in 2002-2003 as a touch program. Frank Rizzo, the current Head Coach of The Woodlands High School Boys Team, had two boys who participated in that early program. After a few years, the boys wanted to take the sport to the next level and incorporate tackle into the game, which resulted in the formation of The Woodlands Rugby Club in 2005-2006. At that time, there weren’t many teams in Texas (only about 4 programs) so finding teams to play was a challenge and always involved commuting to scrimmage and play in tournaments. A stark contrast to 2019 in Texas which included 18 youth teams (K- 8th grade), 24 high school girls’ teams and 32 high school boys’ teams (both junior varsity and varsity).
Development and Growth
The Woodlands Rugby program has experienced remarkable growth (from 100 kids in 2016 to 300 kids in 2019) and the success of the program (an all volunteer-run organization) is attributable to a multitude of factors.
Two years ago, when the President of the board stepped down and the head coach left to take a coaching job for a professional rugby team, a new board was elected. The highly active board members serve three-year terms and voluntarily invest up to 30-40 hours per week in their role during the season. The new board members got right to work with a focus on uniting the boys’ and girls’ teams. The following year, they expanded the program as well as created a new logo and mascot. Their efforts are paying off, not only in the win category, but also in their efforts to secure sponsors, in the college recruitment of players, and the size and domination of The Woodlands Rugby teams.
According to Charlotte “Charlie” Hopkins, President of The Woodlands Rugby Board, Head Coach Frank Rizzo is the key, “Frank is the reason why The Woodlands Rugby Team works. He is the reason we have been so successful. He is an unbelievable coach.” Frank Rizzo, a California transplant, was literally pulled into a college rugby game by the UC Irvine coach while in attendance at a game. He went on to play for UC Santa Barbara and Select Side Rugby when he received a call from New Zealand to play internationally. His rugby career involved play and experiences that took him all over the world from Australia to England. He is very thankful for the opportunities, friendships and perspective afforded to him through the world of rugby and enjoys sharing his love for the sport with the next generation.
Another reason for the significant growth in the number of rugby participants in The Woodlands and across the country is the safety factor. Although many people tend to think of rugby, because it is a contact sport, as dangerous, it is considerably safer than football and there are surprisingly few injuries. As a result, many athletes are migrating from football and other contact sports to rugby. Coach Rizzo stated, “Rugby players aren’t getting concussions. In rugby you have to wrap them up. In football, all you have to do is deliver a blow.” Hopkins adds, “Safety is our #1 priority. We want our children to be safe.” The coaches will not allow kids to play in the games until they feel comfortable. The coaches have even been known to stop games if they felt it was getting too rough. According to Hopkins, in a survey of the parents last year, the feedback indicated that 99% of the parents felt that their children were being kept safe.
The large expat community in The Woodlands also has contributed to the popularity of the sport in the area. The international community in The Woodlands makes the rugby team very diverse and is one of the aspects that many parents appreciate about the team. Not everyone can live and travel abroad, but because of having teammates from all over the world, their children are able to experience and develop friendships with individuals from other cultures.
Finally, the amazing facilities and parks available in The Woodlands set the locale and team apart from other areas. The Come and Take It Tournament, now the largest youth rugby tournament in the state, is held in The Woodlands in March each year, with proceeds benefitting local charities. In addition, The Woodlands hosted the state tournament last year and will host it again next year. “The Woodlands parks and recreation are amazing. No one else has facilities like we do,” remarked Hopkins.
To say that The Woodlands Rugby Team is a powerhouse is an understatement. The teams dominate in the state and the club is by far the largest club in Texas. The Woodlands Rugby Youth Teams took home first in every single age group in the state this year. The high school boys won both the state and regional titles and the high school girls were runners up. However, if you talk to the parents and the coaches, they will tell you that although the kids like to win, rugby and especially The Woodlands Rugby Teams are not about getting the glory, but about supporting their teammates. Parents love the long-term lessons and character building resulting from participation on the team. Hopkins says, “Rugby is not about superstars. It is about being a great teammate. You win as a team, you lose as a team.” In fact, according to Hopkins, when the players were asked at the end of season banquet what their favorite part of the season was, not one player mentioned winning the state title.
What Makes Rugby Special
Rugby is a good-natured sport where respect for one’s teammates and opponents is evident both on and off the field. It is an incredibly social sport; games are extremely competitive, but when the match finishes both teams come together and fraternize. Rizzo stated, “No matter where you go in the world, there is a rugby team and they will welcome you to join in a game.”
Yes, girls do play rugby, in fact there are many collegiate scholarships available for girls who play rugby. No, it is not just for big girls either. All shapes and sizes are needed, especially quick ones. Girls Head Coach Chelsea Peper says, “Cross-over athletes, individuals who played basketball, or soccer for example, make excellent players.” Rugby gives girls confidence and an opportunity to express themselves, they also develop amazing comradery and lasting friendships through the sport. Rugby builds hand-eye coordination and agility, honing skills that are an asset to any sport. Although girls’ rugby is not a varsity sport for girls in the state of Texas now, it is only a matter of time.
Get Out and Give it a “Try”
It is now easier than ever to take in a rugby game as the Houston professional rugby team, The Houston SabreCats, with a former Woodlands Rugby player – Kieran Farmer on the roster, had a new stadium built this year. According to Coach Rizzo, “The sport sells itself, and anyone can play rugby. The kids have the time of their lives. The clock is always running and the ball is always live, so it is a lot of improvisation. You create the game as you go.” Rugby is a great complement to other sports and even for the kids that aren’t very “sporty”. The coaches encourage youth to come out and “Give Rugby a Try” (a goal is called a “try” in rugby) in November. Every Tuesday in November, kids can try touch-only rugby for free.
For more information on The Woodlands Rugby programs, please visit: woodlandsrugbyclub.org