Rugby Gaining in Popularity in Green Country
By GLENN HIBDON
GTR Sports Writer
INTERNATIONAL ACTION: This photo is from rugby action in Johannesburg, South Africa. The international sport is gaining in popularity in the U.S. as well as in the greater Tulsa area.
Move over football. At last there is another way for Green Country high school athletes to find fame and glory playing a collision sport in college. It’s called rugby and it’s still seeking an identity in Tulsa.
Thanks to men like Luke Turner, a Sapulpa firefighter and president of the Tulsa Rugby Football Club, rugby is gaining in popularity locally and promises to become a fixture on the American sports scene. It’s been a slow process, but the movement is gaining ground. “It is the fastest growing sport in the United States over the last 10 years,’’ says Turner, who played rugby at Jenks High School. “It’s growing regionally and locally. We’ve got 14 high school teams with a number of programs starting girl’s teams. “Tulsa Rugby started a women’s team five years ago, and that’s one of the areas where we’ve had the most growth. They like the camaraderie of the sport, and they bring in husbands and boyfriends. They like being part of a club and they get their kids involved.’’ Turner became so enamored with rugby that he quit playing football at the University of Arkansas to join the school’s club team as an inside center. He transferred to the University of Oklahoma and continued his rugby career. Now he is an advocate for the sport, heading the that started play in 1974. Today there are more than 350 high school players and 75 each on the individual rosters of the men’s and women’s teams. Broken Arrow, Jenks, Union, Bartlesville, Bixby, Stillwater, Edmond, Norman and Yukon all have high school teams. “We’ve got youth clinics for first through eighth grade boys and girls,’’ Turner says. “We’re trying to develop a league for the first through eighth grade brackets, and we’re hoping to have that set up by spring. There has been a lot of interest due to the Olympics, and we’re trying to capture all of that interest and give the kids an opportunity to play.’’
There are four names that come to Turner’s mind when celebrating the “kids’’ who took advantage of their chance to play. Foremost is Lorenzo Thomas who suited up at Union, reached All-America status at Lindenwood University in Missouri and became a member of the national team.
Maylon Al-Jiboori and Chance Wenglewski are both Union products who earned All-America honors at Lindenwood and are on the Under-21 development team. Neariah Persinger played at Broken Arrow and was also an All-America at Lindenwood last season. “People who enjoy football are naturally inclined to like rugby because it offers a lot of the same physicality, athleticism and excitement,’’ says Turner. “I prefer rugby because of the non-stop speed of the game. Look at an game, and they may have only 10 minutes of actual play. In rugby you play 80 minutes and 65 of that the ball is in play. In my opinion, that’s more exciting.’’ The sport has a long and distinguished history, described as a “type of football developed at Rugby School in Rugby, England, one of many versions of football played at English public schools in the 19th century.’’ It was introduced to America in the mid-19th century and there are over 115,000 players and 2,588 clubs registered with Rugby, the national governing body. Recognized by many as a sport requiring physical strength, toughness and aggressiveness, injuries are perceived as commonplace. “It’s not a dangerous sport, speaking from experience,’’ Turner says. “It’s safer than other collision sports, and I believe the numbers will back me up on that. Knee injuries are similar to any other sport you play. I encourage everyone to play rugby and I feel good about saying that.’’ Indeed, there are “old boys’’ teams in Tulsa for senior players in addition to the women’s program. The men’s season runs from December to June with the women playing from September to May. Most games are played at 37th and Riverside with some at Mohawk Sports Complex. “Both our men’s and women’s teams play in the Red River Rugby Conference,’’ Turner says. “We’re in Division II club rugby, and we compete with teams from Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. We’ve been very successful over the years and won our region multiple times. We’ve played in the (national) Sweet 16, the Elite Eight and the Final Four.’’ Turner says he enjoys the sport for its flowing movement with no coach sending in plays like football. Quick reaction on the field is necessary and players play “both ways.’’ There are no changes from offense to defense. A wide variety of skills are required and everyone has a chance to run with the ball, make tackles and make an impact. “I love the networking and how it opens you up to a global sport,’’ says Turner. “There are opportunities to play internationally, and it’s a lifelong sport. You don’t have to settle down once high school is over. It’s cradle to grave. A lot of people continue to play well after retirement. It may not be as physical, but they are still passionate.’’ Turner says fitness is important to play 80-minute games with no timeouts, but the willingness to learn is more important. There is the need to “think on your feet’’ while learning the laws of the game. “We’re always looking for players. We don’t turn people away,’’ says Turner. “Our members run the gamut of people, from doctors, lawyers, bartenders, waitresses to firefighters like myself. We have multiple teams and there is one for everybody. “There is a position for every body type somewhere on the field where you can fit in. That’s another thing I like about it. We’re getting requests for tryouts and we’re spreading the word through our website (www.tulsarugbyclub.com) and social media page. Those are our biggest recruiting tools in terms of media.’’ In addition to developing the sport at the youth level, the next frontier for Turner and the is encouraging the University of Tulsa, Oral Roberts and Rogers State to start programs. “We want the universities to consider rugby as a varsity sport,’’ he says. “OU and already have club teams. “There is also the Professional Rugby Organization (the league) of North America that started this year. There is an opportunity for growth with a lot of cities approving stadium construction to bring in pro rugby. We’ve made similar pitches to the (Tulsa) Sports Commission. We want to attract Rugby to Tulsa and make it the Olympic training center.’’ For now, spreading the word is the name of the game. Rugby is in Tulsa, and Turner says it’s here to stay.