Rugby on the Rise in Whatcom County

Published on Wed, Jan 23, 2013 by Ian Ferguson

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While most Whatcom County residents (this reporter included) don’t know the difference between a scrum and a ruck, a local high school rugby club has quietly gained national notoriety as a top-ranked team. 

The Chuckanut Bay Rugby U-19 boys team won the Washington state title last year, and was recently ranked number four in the nation by Rugby Magazine. 

Two past Chuckanut players, Shawn Pittman and Nick Wallace, are now playing professionally and hope to be selected for the U.S. Olympic team in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The hotbed of local rugby talent is no accident – Chuckanut Bay Rugby offers teams for kids as young as five and as old as the hills, men’s and women’s teams, and a passionate community of support for a game that emphasizes teamwork, camaraderie and sportsmanship.

Birch Bay resident Brad Otto first got involved with rugby three years ago. As fans and supporters of high school football, he 
and his friends were talking about ways to improve the skills of high school football players in the offseason.

“Someone told me about rugby,” he said. “I was like, ‘No kidding?’ Turns out this sport focuses on the fundamentals of football – tackling, ball handling, agility, conditioning – and the season runs for four months in the spring and summer.”

The Chuckanut Bay Rugby Club has three teams for teenagers: The U14, U16 and U19. U19 is equivalent to a varsity-level squad.

With Whatcom County youth rugby registration on Sunday, January 27, it’s a good time to learn more about a sport that enjoys worldwide popularity, but is little understood in America.

American football is a direct descendent of rugby. Many different types of football were played throughout Britain from 1400 to 1800, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that the game of rugby became formalized in England before rapidly spreading throughout the world. American football evolved from rugby through several major rule changes, most notably by the addition of a line of scrimmage.

In the game of rugby, two teams of 15 face off on a field roughly the size of a football field and try to score points by carrying, passing and kicking a ball shaped like a football but bigger. The teams defend their side by tackling the opponent with the ball to try and gain possession.

Despite the fact that rugby players wear no protection other than a light helmet, injuries  are far fewer than what occurs in football. Without pads, players tackle with their shoulders and by wrapping their opponent with their arms. 

The upshot for football fans is that players who also play rugby gain courage and contact proficiency on the gridiron, not to mention four extra months of conditioning and agility exercises. Arizona Cardinals linebacker Stewart Bradley was a rugby star in high school, and played only one season of high school football before going on to play for Nebraska and then the Philadelphia Eagles in 2007.

To Otto, who is now the U-15 team manager for Chuckanut Bay Rugby, it seemed like a perfect match – get high school football players to play rugby, and watch their football skills improve. 

So far, the concept has been slow to catch on.

“The football coaches don’t seem to want their kids playing rugby, and I can’t figure out why,” Otto said. But Otto is optimistic the next batch of middle-schoolers that will move on to high school football with two years of rugby under their belt will prove to coaches that rugby can be a feeder for football.

Three middle-school students from Blaine, including Otto’s son Brady, are heading to Las Vegas to play in a national tournament February 6 through 9. The other two athletes are Devyn Dickinson and Cody Goucher.

“The best thing about rugby is that it fosters sportsmanship,” Otto said. “While you’re playing, you hate your opponent and try your hardest to win. But there’s never a culture of excessive celebration or talking back to the refs. And after each game, all the players from both teams get together. Adults will chat about the game over a beer, and at the youth level we go out for hot dogs or ice cream, and they all get to be good buddies. It builds a strong community.”

The 2013 youth rugby season sign-up is on Sunday, January 27 from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the WECU meeting room on Holly Street in Bellingham. 

Anyone interested can find information online at chuckanutrugby.com or by calling Otto at 360/961-4578.