Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
In soccer terms, this was supposed to be a "friendly."
So why were two members of the Sarasota Surge bleeding Saturday after their match against the Pelican Rugby Football Club of St. Petersburg? I watched as players were tackled, dragged along the pitch, knocked out of mid-air and generally beaten up.
Once the physical fireworks of the match had subsided, the two teams shook hands like gentlemen and walked together to grab some adult drinks from the clubhouse.
Rugby culture is a special thing, Surge president and coach Gary Jones told me after the game at the Sarasota International Cricket Club in Lakewood Ranch, where the Surge plays its home games. Jones has been a Lakewood Ranch resident for 17 years, sending four kids through Lakewood Ranch High School. He was born in England, where he fell in love with rugby. The sport itself was fun for Jones, sure, but what he really loved most was the camaraderie.
“You knock seven bells out of each other for 80 minutes, and then you go and have a beer together and have a laugh,” Jones said.
Prior to attending the Surge match, my knowledge of rugby was limited to that episode of “Friends” where Ross plays in a match to impress his English girlfriend, and he comes close to death.
Thankfully, there is indeed more to the game than savagery for savagery’s sake.
The scrum, rugby’s version of a face-off in hockey, requires strength and impeccable balance while trying to knock the ball backwards with your feet. Line-outs, or throw-ins in American sports vernacular, are a must-watch. One player from each team leaps into the the air and is supported by a teammate. The jumper can either catch the ball himself or beat it backwards to an open receiver. It is very cool to see a line-out done successfully.
Points are scored when someone converts a “try,” or touch the ball to the ground within the in-goal area, similar to a touchdown in football. Those are worth five points. From there, teams can add two more points by kicking a conversion through the uprights. Teams can also try a drop goal, where the ball is literally dropped on the ground and kicked on the bounce through the uprights, from anywhere on the field for three points. There are other rules, too, for rucks and mauls, but I’m not going to pretend I have any idea how those work. They were just fun to watch.
The allure of the game, for me, came from chaos. At one moment, the teams appeared to be in a vise grip for control of the ball. The next, the ball is loose and picked up by a Surge player who does his best Mike Alstott impression and pummels a Pelican. The constant laterals keep the action moving. Late in the match, someone threw a lateral backward over his head to a Surge teammate, who caught it with his fingers outstretched and converted a try after dodging a swarm of Pelicans.
The Surge men’s team won the Florida Division III championship last season. Their 2017 season gets underway on Jan. 15 at 2 p.m. at home against the Daytona Beach Coconuts. They also have a growing youth program featuring U10, U12 and U14 teams, and they just added a high school squad as well.
No experience is necessary to join either a youth team or the men’s team. The club charges just enough to pay for a uniform and a mouthpiece, plus registration fees with the Florida Youth Rugby Union and USA Rugby, respectively.
The physicality on display during men’s game is not introduced to the children right away. It is a gradual induction, so there is no need to worry about kids getting seriously hurt or being in over their heads. In fact, the overall goal of the academy has little to do with rugby itself at all.
“Rugby is a very disciplined sport,” Jones said. “It teaches the children to be disciplined. Hopefully they take that into the classroom and into their lives as they grow up.
“The referee runs the entire show. It’s about the discipline of the players. You know, in football there’s all the dancing. Here, you can score nine times, but no one’s dancing around or doing that sort of stuff. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just a matter of fact. It’s rugby culture. We have a lot of American football players and we basically beat that out of them, because it’s just not our mentality. We try to teach the children that part of the game, where you’re not jeering the other person or anything else.”
Respect for one another is always a message worth spreading. I applaud Jones and the Surge for putting the academy’s focus where it needs to be. If kids can learn to value and appreciate people of all backgrounds through an exhilarating game like rugby, that is the paragon, and it will help create a better future for all of us.