Our Town: Hilton Head Rugby Team Competing in National Championship
Author: Michael Paskevich
Hilton Head Rugby Club players are nursing the anticipated aches, breaks and bruises that come in a hard-hitting contact sport that’s still a mystery to most Americans. Yet the eclectic collection of athletes has time for healing, at least until next season, when it returns from this month’s national championships in Colorado as one of this country’s top teams, no matter the result.
“We’re kind of like gladiators, although we all come from very different backgrounds,” said Coach Wells Fulton after a winning mid-May trip to the Southeast semifinals in Virginia. “We have an attorney (Mitch Thoreson), college students who played other sports, a property manager and military guys who discovered the game overseas. It’s all about the competition, the camaraderie and our love of the game.”
The non-profit club, formed in 1974, has risen steadily in the national ranks, thanks to plenty of practice, ensuing hard knocks and the financial support of area business sponsors—some of them former players whose ongoing support reflect the close-knit nature of the British-born sport that’s big news in many countries. “There’s a lot of networking and support that goes on among our players,” Thoreson said. “Every few weeks we get an e-mail from someone overseas who is coming here for an internship in the hospitality industry and wants to be part of this. They grew up playing the game as kids and we now have Hilton Head rugby players scattered all over the world. It’s like being in a fraternity.”
American-born athletes who played football and soccer remain the club’s core. And those who survive no-pads tackles during open-invitation scrimmages begin to learn the game and its hidden nuances. “A lot of our new guys have that football mentality, and the first thing we do is try and break them of that,” Fulton said. “There’s a lot more that goes on than just hitting each other. There are set plays and, while it seems chaotic to those who don’t know what’s going on, it’s really more like contact chess. You have to stick to the game plan to win.”
Strong defense is the team’s trademark, which led to its initial trip to the nationals against competition culled from bigger populations than Beaufort County. The club climbed into the top 20 teams among more than 9,000 clubs nationwide, and players are optimistic about the future, comparing the sport’s current status to that of soccer or lacrosse not long ago. Colleges such as Penn State, Ohio State and UC Berkeley have elevated the sport beyond the club level and are drawing athletes who once focused on the holy trinity of commercial American sports: football, baseball and basketball.
“Rugby leagues are sprouting up across South Carolina and the entire country,” Fulton said. “There are elite athletes in America who haven’t been exposed to the sport, but I have the feeling that it won’t be long before it becomes more common to the average person.” Meanwhile, there are more matches to win, libations to share and ready excuses for knocking the heck out of opponents. “It’s a risky sport but we can get away with things that would land us in jail.”