Rugby is on the rise. In fact, it’s the fastest growing sport in the country. But it’s also dangerous.
Players on a rugby field tackle each other, like in football, but they do it without helmets. As the sport grows, so does concern about concussions.
In a park tucked behind Middletown's IHOP restaurant, coach Chris Grey teaches his players the rugby tackle. He pairs the high schoolers up. One holds the ball and tries to run across a grid of cones, while a defender tries to wrestle the runner to the ground.
“Listen! In rugby it’s not about the collision,” Grey tells his players. “It’s not about coming up at hitting the guy or girl as hard as you can. It’s about getting the person on the ground, so then the ball’s available to be taken by the next defender to come in.”
As Grey instructs his players, tackling is an important skill in rugby. Once a player is on the ground, they have to let go of the ball. Defenders can then push and shove to win control of the loose ball.
Sixteen-year-old Allison Trapani is one of Grey’s players. She drives from East Greenwich to Aquidneck Island twice a week to play a sport few of her friends even know about.
“I’ve actually had a couple of my friends ask, like, ‘What is rugby?’” Trapani said. “And I’m like, are you kidding?”
Trapani’s into sports: she also plays soccer, softball and track. Now she’s hooked on rugby.
“It kind of combines all the sports that I play into one, and just the physicality of it is so new and exciting that I couldn’t stop once I started,” Trapani explained.
Trapani’s not alone. Across the country, youth rugby is growing fast. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, the number of kids playing rugby doubled between 2009 and 2014.
Massachusetts officially added the sport in high schools last year, after club teams grew in popularity. In that first year, there were 18 boys teams and 7 girls teams.
In Rhode Island, youth rugby is just starting to take root. Chris Grey founded the Newport County Youth Rugby Club in 2012.
“The difficulties are just trying to get the kids to try rugby,” Grey said. “A lot of times once they’ve tried it, the majority of them like it and they’ll stick around.”
With plenty of other sports to choose from, Grey says high schoolers weren’t interested so he started a middle school program. But even at that age, students were already interested in other sports.
“So we tried to go even younger,” Grey said. “You get ‘em at 2nd, 3rd, 4th grade, and you try to get ‘em hooked, and then maybe they’ll forgo those other options in the future.”
On a humid summer night, just seven high schoolers are learning to tackle.
The players drive their shoulders into each other and practice knocking their teammates to the ground. It looks like a football practice, except that none of the players wear pads or helmets. The lack of protection is part of rugby’s reputation for injury.
Kathy Flores, head coach of the Brown University Women’s Rugby team, admits head injuries are hard to prevent.
“There is no way I can put a kid in a bubble, in a contact sport, and keep them from ever getting a concussion.” Flores said. “We can just say we will be as safe as we possibly can.”
Flores coached yours truly until just a few months ago and from personal experience, head injuries do happen. It’s something everyone’s becoming more worried about
“There’s no disease in recent history--especially in sports medicine--that has consumed the public like a concussion has,” said Dr. Neha Raukar who specializes in concussions at the Center for Sports Medicine in Rhode Island.
“Even Hollywood has caught on. And people follow the football players, and they hear ‘concussion’ all the time,” Raukar explained.
So what is a concussion?
When the brain is jostled inside the skull, neurons get stretched and damaged. This can cause a whole constellation of symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, and a foggy feeling, like you just woke up from an afternoon nap.
With rest, Raukar says, the brain will heal. But if players go back to the field before the brain is ready, they’re likely to get another concussion. And it can be even worse for kids.
“The younger athletes have a lower threshold for injury and your recovery times are also longer,” Raukar said.
Because of the risks to young players, coaches wait until high school to teach tackling. Middle and elementary school rugby leagues across the country stick to playing a tag-based version of the game.
And Brown women’s rugby coach Kathy Flores says the rugby community is working to make the sport safer for all ages. When Flores teaches tackling she starts from the ground up – first teaching players how to fall safely.
“We always say you go down knees, hips, shoulders, so that you’re making all those parts hit the ground first,” Flores said. “And then you want to be very careful about keeping your chin tucked, so that you’re not slamming your head against the ground, because often that’s how people get hurt.”
Flores says she knows parents who worry about their children suffering concussions but playing rugby is about more than the risk.
“I’m not going to lie and say it never happens, but I think you have to look at your child and say: is she happy doing this? Does she really enjoy the people that she’s with? Because you need to factor that in to what you think about your child’s experience too,” Flores said.
Back at practice with the Newport County Youth Rugby team, player Allison Trapani says she enjoys playing a contact sport.
“It’s not too rough, but you still get that physical aspect of it,” Trapani said. “But yeah, it’s just a blast every time.”
From the sidelines, coach Chris Grey praises an especially good tackle.
Grey hopes the sport will keep growing. He’d like to see teams in each of Rhode Island’s five counties.