"Probably the image of rugby in years gone by was not the greatest," allows Mark Connolly of Pittsburgh Harlequins Rugby Association. "People treated it [as] just the sport for people to get together and get drunk. And the coaching wasn't that great. But that's changed dramatically in the last 10 years. The players have determined that this game stands alone in its beauty. In rugby, everybody is expected to run the ball, pass the ball. There's limited substitution." Plus, he adds, it has the mental aspects of soccer, he says, "and yet it has the contact most American kids want."
Rugby in Pittsburgh must be doing something right. In May, the Harlequins hosted the national tournament at their Harmarville field; on Aug. 9-10, the team will host the national tourney for "sevens rugby," rugby's quicker, higher-scoring variant played with seven per side, as opposed to the normal team complement of 15.
Why Pittsburgh? For once, it's because of a great stadium -- or two full-size rugby fields and a clubhouse, to be precise. "Just the setting is grand," he reports. "We're in a wooded area with a stream." Sixteen teams from across the United States won regional and sectional tournaments to make it here.
Despite being advertised -- at least on enthusiasts' bumper stickers -- as practically a blood sport, rugby's not so rough a game, says Connolly, of Aspinwall: "Everybody knows the scrum. There's actually no mayhem there. It's eight guys working together as a unit for the purpose of getting the ball.
"You have less serious injuries than you do even in soccer," he adds, "because even though you have a great deal of contact, it's all around the ball. There's no blocking. Dangerous high tackles are outlawed. And there's a lot more space than on an American football field" -- so runners have room to miss each other. "Plus the same size guys are hitting the same size guys."
This precursor to American football, with its lines of scrimmage and touchdowns, is gaining popularity in colleges and especially in high schools, he says. The Harlequins Association, a nonprofit group, runs touch-rugby programs for kids under 15 in Homewood, Hazelwood, Sto Rox, Garfield and Braddock, coached by team players and alumni, plus four full-contact tackle rugby programs in local high schools.
Though the Harlequins themselves didn't make the tournament cut, they're not missing out on anything like a Lombardi Trophy. The winners, Connolly says, "basically get a nice trophy and a nice medal -- and bragging rights."
For more information: www.pittsburghharlequins.org/mens_7.html