Interest in high school rugby has leveled off
Eric Jerpe faces the monumental task of vaulting rugby into the high school sports mainstream.
"Here in the area, I don't want to say (growth) has stagnated, but it has pretty much remained the same with some teams coming in and some teams being eliminated due to their response," Jerpe said. "The one thing I have noticed in this area is that the quality of players and the understanding of the game has improved dramatically over the past 10 years. ... Even though we haven't been able to grow it to the level I would like it to be -- which we will eventually -- the quality has improved."
Jerpe has coached the Fox Chapel boys program since its inception in 2000 and through peaks and valleys in rugby's popularity. Only three teams are composed of players from one WPIAL school -- Fox Chapel, Burrell and Woodland Hills -- while two others in the area, South Hills and West Hills, boast students from several school districts.
Those squads face teams from Erie and West Virginia. A team from the northern part of the WPIAL that would have been mostly students from North Allegheny and Seneca Valley was slated to play this season but could not garner enough interest.
"To be honest, it's been kind of flat for the last two years. But it's picking up interest this year, and I think there's more teams coming at least in the western part of Pennsylvania for next year," Burrell coach Ron Zanella said. "The main reason is that there's guys that have a willingness to coach it."
Both boys and girls are willing to play it. Fox Chapel is the only area school that fields a girls team, but the squad has to travel to Franklin or West Virginia for section play. It also participates in tournaments in the Midwest.
Such long road trips haven't dissuaded players from signing up.
"It's a lot more competitive than a lot of sports because, in a lot of guy-girl sports like lacrosse, the rules are different for girls in that it's less physical. But in rugby, it's pretty much the same for guys and girls," Fox Chapel senior Brittany Lyons said. "It lets girls actually play a sport with the real rules, and it's fun."
With that comes a real threat of injuries. Since rugby is played without pads or a helmet, broken fingers and noses, lost teeth and concussions are a risk.
"A couple of years ago, we had a girl get tackled and she hit her head on the ground and she started seizing," Lyons said. "That was probably the worst that I've seen, but injuries happen."
Despite the similarities between the sports, surprisingly few football players participate in rugby. Most athletes play only rugby or come from the hockey or wrestling teams.
"There's a lot less rules in rugby and a lot harder hits. The training is a lot different, with a lot more running, and you have to go just to learn how to play the game, because it's a pretty hard sport to understand at first," said Burrell senior Colten Staley, who is on the rugby team and was a defensive tackle for the football squad. "I like rugby more than football, but most of the rugby teams around here are not actual school sports. They're clubs ... so it's hard to get the word out."
Like high school hockey here, schools are not obligated to budget funds for the club sport. Although some schools have started slipping stipends to hockey teams, rugby has not reached that point. Also like hockey, rugby players pay most of the bills with fundraisers for uniforms, travel, equipment and travel expenses.
There are other reasons why rugby has not taken off despite the fact that it will be an Olympic sport in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. No hope of a college scholarship exists; universities compete at the club level. Since no true professional rugby league exists in the United States, players would have to settle for the World Cup team.
Despite the drawbacks, there is hope that, with heavy media coverage of next year's World Cup in New Zealand and the Olympics, the sport will grow at the grassroots level.
"We have to get rid of a lot of the misconceptions about rugby, because all you ever hear is the bad stuff," Jerpe said. "Rugby has grown tremendously around the country and the world in the last decade, and a lot of people think it's just 'kill the guy with the ball' and don't realize the skill and intricacies involved in the game."