Regardless of the emerging sport in America, they all have the same narrative: That theirs is the fastest growing sport in the country.
For sports like lacrosse and for a long time, soccer, this was true as the growth is evident.
Now enter rugby, the godfather to both American football and soccer.
The sport is booming in the United States as it is now the nation with the 10th most rugby-playing athletes in the world, according to the International Rugby Board (IRB). There is even talk of the Rugby World Cup (15-player, union code) potentially being hosted by the nation in either 2027 or 2031. Already, the Rugby League World Cup (13-player, league code) has been set to arrive in the USA and Canada for the 2025 edition of the event.
The league and union codes are much different as the former is a possession game with much more scrum, maul and ruck (pack) action while league is more like football with six downs to score or else kick it away and less grind-it-out play in a game of field position.
A look at the collegiate sport landscape illustrates the growth as a number of colleges across the country have developed rugby programs – albeit with only a handful being sponsored by university athletic departments – thus making it more of high-level club sport.
Then there is the announcement of the newly fashioned Major League Rugby organization which is set to launch a professional version of the sport (15-man) in the nation next year, with one of the franchises being awarded to Kansas City and the Blues’ organization, a long-time club outfit that will become one of the flagship teams.
With that, there are a number of rugby programs in the area that also provide rugby sevens (7-players) for both men and women, with the latter growing more and more.
So much so, that over the past few years, a handful of women who have either lived or been based in Leavenworth – via military assignment or otherwise – have decided to take the trek to the city and participate
Two of those women – Jessica Polk and Chey Coates – have taken a love of the sport on to the pitch and hope that more and more women can get involved.
Both women are associated with the Kansas City (MO) Jazz club which has summer sevens and 15s during the conventional season of fall through spring. Learn more at www.kcjazzwrfc.com or www.facebook.com/KCJazzWRFC
A player has to be at least 18 years of age or if younger, they would need parental approval.
“I like that it’s made for everybody,” Coates said. “I coached for almost 10 years and I still referee. None of us look the same as far as body-type goes and yet it is for everybody.
“And you can hit people.”
Where football is more of a violent collision sport with a handful of big hits, rugby is grind-it-out game of toughness where players will see themselves being tackled 10 to 15 times more per contest compared to its counterpart.
In a rugby league game, one team alone can make over 200 tackles in one half of action compared to 30 or 40.
“I play rugby because it’s smarter than football and there is more structure to it and more finesse to it,” Coates said. “There was a time when it wasn’t super popular here, my dad played so it was fun to do something different.”
One thing different is when a player gets injured, the game goes on around him/her unless their presence affects the flow of the game.
“The game keeps going,” Coates said. “There is no lay on the ground and stop things. People get hurt and then get back up and keep playing. Once the play is over, it’s like ‘By the way, I can’t move.’ If someone is hurt in the field of play, there is no stoppage and the game keeps going as long as the play won’t affect that person who is down.”
Women are expected to play under that same standard as men.
“If you are asking should women use the same level of physicality as men in the same sport as men? I’d agree with that,” Polk said. “If you have adults that have a grasp of what comes with that and are trained to play it intelligently, I think (women) should be (able to play the same).”
Rugby’s basic rules include no forward passing, but players can either lateral a ball backward to a teammate or kick it forward. One can not tackle anyone unless they have the ball, there is no blocking and launching at the head is frowned upon while taking shots at knees is replaced by just trying to grab a player at the same spot.
“You have to make a legitimate tackle,” Coates said. “The game keeps going if you make your play or you don’t make your play. You learn how to take a hit.”
The game is played with a 40-minute running clock and usually an entire match for league or union is done in two hours.
For sevens, the teams play two seven-minute halves and a game is wrapped up in about a half hour.
Both women have noted that they have seen men from Leavenworth – mostly based at the fort – get involved in the sport, but more women have joined especially as the Jazz program continues to stay relevant and important.
“I’ve seen over the years, we’ve had steady involvement from the fort … but the sport has become more popular,” Polk said.
Both women believe more ladies should get involved in playing the game.
“It’s about the community, the camaraderie,” Coates said. “It’s get out there and play. I would tell people to just go out there and find three things and try not to do those three things wrong and everything else will come naturally: Don’t throw the ball forward, don’t tackle somebody that doesn’t have the ball and tackle (shoulders to the thighs). If you remember those three things, everything else will develop during the game.
“If you just watched from the sideline, you’d be just as confused before the game as after the game, because there is so much stuff going on.”
“It has a physicality that I have not encountered in any other sport,” said Polk, who is relatively new to the game. “I had a history in law enforcement before that … it is so demanding. There is such camaraderie with everyone giving it their all, regardless of their age differences. What I found that is so spectacular is all the levels of education, their careers. It’s a lot of variety and a lot of inspiring individuals.
“I think rugby players play with more consideration because they know exactly what it feels like. The rules are structured as such – the ‘Gentleman’s game.’”