Rugby’s Rise in Roanoke

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ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — On a Saturday afternoon, you can find Tim Largen standing on the sidelines at Highland Park watching his old club, Roanoke Rugby, play one of the fastest growing sports in America.

“I help do little things, but mostly I’m just here to support them,” the former club president said. “It’s, I’ll say, free flowing, really not a lot of timeouts, except when the ball goes out of bounds or there’s a penalty or something like that. But it’s somewhat difficult to explain because people know football so well but it’s basically football without passing the ball forward.”

While the sport has had a home in the Star City for decades, rugby is enjoying its time in the global spotlight. For the next six weeks in Japan, 20 countries, including the United States will battle for the coveted Webb Ellis trophy at the Rugby World Cup, which began Friday in Tokyo. The competition is considered to be the third largest single sporting event in the world, behind the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics.

And at a time when football is being criticized for safety concerns, rugby has become an alternative that’s growing in popularity.

“It’s rough and you get a lot of bruises and scrapes and things like that but people learn and understand how to tackle, Largen said. “We don’t have helmets on, we don’t have pads on, we do  it a different way, you don’t wrap players, you don’t go at them with your head first, that kind of thing.”

The United States men’s national team is ranked 13th in the world. Meanwhile, Major League Rugby is entering its third year with more teams being added for 2020. But while rugby’s exponential rise in America has only taken place in recent years, Roanoke Rugby goes all the way back to the 1970s. Games have been taking place at Highland Park dating back to the 1980s.

“We’ve got a great group of core players here that have been around for a long time and as long as they stay, we tend to do flourish and do well,” Largen said.

One of those longtime players is Benjamin Sweeney, who’s now been a member of the club for 19 years.

“It’s a constant motion. There’s something going on whether or not it’s across the field and I’ve got to be like, okay it’s time to get moving, time to cross the field or it’s okay, I got the guy right in front of me, I’ve got to tackle him,” Sweeney said. “There’s something always going on, it’s always movement, it’s continuous action.”

Like Sweeney, many of the players on the Roanoke Rugby team were athletes in other sports. Sweeney went to Longwood College to wrestle. But he turned to rugby when the school cut the wrestling program in his sophomore year.

“Most of them had done something, whether it’s a team sport or individual,” Largen said. “A lot of wrestlers for whatever reason we’ve had out playing. Always been excellent players. Folks that have transferred from lacrosse and some ex-football players but honestly not that many.”

Largen added: “A lot of knuckle heads and misfits, that kind of thing.”

The club has attracted a variety of individuals from different backgrounds and industries.

“You’ve got people from all walks of life,” Sweeney said. “Public safety people here, from firefighters and police officers to lawyers and doctors, you’ve got students. You’ve got guys that work in a bar. You’ve got guys that have done construction all day long.”

They’ve all become family to Sweeney. A rugby family growing almost as big as the sport itself.

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