By Beatrice Rosen
Often called “the game for animals played by gentleman,” rugby is arguably one of the most unique sports in the world. In the territorial, full-contact team game, inclusive of all shapes and sizes, players with bulldozer-like strength and power are valued just as highly as small and swift sprinters.
Although rugby is also one of the most popular sports in the world, its rise in the U.S. seems to have only just begun. According to a 2011 study done by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), rugby is the third fastest growing sport in America.
Such growth is evident in the explosion of youth rugby programs throughout Southern California, which went from six teams in 2004 to over 60 currently, according to Kilian Kerwin, director of youth rugby for the Santa Monica Rugby Club.
The growing enthusiasm has led to the development of a summer league called “Rugby Sevens,” also known as 7-a-side or VII’s, which is a variant of rugby in which teams are made up of seven players, instead of the usual 15, with matches lasting 14 minutes rather than 80. Furthermore, 2016 marks the first year Sevens will be played in the Olympic Games.
In Southern California, the Sevens season begins in May, just after the 15-a-side main season finishes, so avidly impassioned players can participate year-round.
With over 250 players in its program, the Santa Monica Rugby Club, also known as the Dolphins, sent numerous teams to compete in Sevens tournaments throughout the summer. It was their under-18 youth boys team, however, that compiled quite the impressive season record.
On Aug. 3, this Dolphins team won the Southern California Serevi 7-a-side Series in Fullerton, which marked an unbeaten run of five weekend tournaments in a row. The win also makes the team the undisputed Southern California Sevens champion – all in addition to its earlier achievement of winning the Rugby Sevens title at the California State Games in San Marcos on July 13.
One tournament consists of five to six games, and Coach Charlie Lydon says it was that final game in the Serevi Series tournament that marked the culmination of the Dolphins’ remarkable summer season.
Lydon noted the Dolphins had beaten the Poway Rugby Club team before, but this time “they were stronger and had really improved, and you could see how hungry they were to beat us, but our team in the final played fantastically.”
“The best game we played all season,” recalled Lydon. “Particularly our exceptional defense. They did not let the opposition break through, which is what ultimately made the difference in the end.”
His 17-year-old son and one of the team’s captains, Conor Lydon, believes the real turning point in their season was when they played Palos Verdes in the second tournament.
“Our Sevens team, at first, was a group of individuals trying to score,” says the younger Lydon. “This method worked against the teams in the first tournament because we had a lot of talent. It wasn’t until this game where we stopped playing as individuals and came together as a team.”
His father made a conscious effort from the start to emphasize discipline and putting the team first, for he also agrees that one of the keys to the team’s success was realizing that “if we play as a team we can beat anybody, and to not be selfish and pass that ball early.”
The coach will take this motto into the winter’s 15-a-side season, which both the coaching staff and players are feeling excited and confident about, based on this summer’s results.
Those who did not participate in Sevens are especially fired up, for they had to cheer the squad on from the sidelines because only 12 players are allowed to play per game. And unfortunately their usual, 15-a-side squad consists of 34 players, so many cuts had to be made.
The sole logistics of Rugby Sevens dictated how the cuts were made, as half the number of players are covering the same size field as 15-a-side rugby. Therefore, Lydon says Sevens players need to be very athletic, fit and skillful due to the constant running around the field.
“In 15-a-side you will have guys on the field for their power, strength and size, but there is no space for them in 7-a-side because it’s just too fast and fluid for them,” explains Lydon. “So people love watching 7-a-side rugby because it’s more expansive and fast-flowing… the players don’t want to risk giving up the ball by kicking it into the opposition.”
Team member Evan Clark, who plays on both the 7- and 15-a-side teams, prefers 15’s because “it’s more of a team sport and less individual running, and involves a lot more practice. Sevens comes from being a great athlete and then being a rugby player.”
Conor Lydon agrees with his teammate, saying he prefers 15’s because “of the style of play required to succeed. Sevens is heavy on keeping possession at all costs, whereas in 15’s it’s about running full speed at your opposite number and gaining as many yards as possible.”
Both players also predict that in this upcoming 15-a-side season, their team could not only go undefeated in the league, but also win the Southern California Championship, the California State Cup and move on to compete in nationals.
“I have no doubt in my mind that this team could go on to be ranked top five in the nation,” adds Lydon.
Kerwin even believes that some of the boys on the under-18 youth Dolphins team could, if they stick with it, go to the Olympics for the traditional 15-a-side rugby, or now for the 7-a-side format.
“The future for youth rugby is to serve as a feeder program into the U.S. Olympic development program for rugby,” says Kerwin, who started Santa Monica Rugby’s youth rugby program in 2004 by getting local kids together to travel and play against a handful of teams around Southern California.
Since then, Kerwin says the sport’s popularity in the U.S. has grown so rapidly for several reasons:
“First, nobody really knew about it, so we have the potential to grow. Secondly, it’s a good sport for boys, girls and people of all different shapes and sizes because there is a position for everybody. Every one of those positions at some point will get a chance to play, touch the ball, pass and eventually score, unlike football where the quarterback and receivers get most of the glory because they take the ball.”
Charlie Lydon added, “At the end of the day, we just love the game of rugby because it teaches players such great things, like discipline, camaraderie and teamwork. The sportsmanship and inclusiveness between the players on the team, and with the opposition, is so much better than other sports.”
The boys on the Santa Monica Youth Rugby Club’s under-18 team couldn’t agree more. While this summer’s victories have been sweet, the 34 players can’t wait to be out on a field and practicing together again.
As a retired player for Connacht, one of the four professional provincial rugby teams from Ireland, Coach Lydon says “the most important thing is loving the game and enjoying playing the game, whether you win or lose. And that is the case with this team of boys – they just have a great time out there together.”
Santa Monica youth rugby team dominates summer season
By Beatrice Rosen