Like many parents, one my first thoughts on learning my son Hiro had signed up to play rugby at South Burlington High School was safety. After all, these guys made bone crushing hits in what looked like a free-for-all on the field without the protection of pads or helmets. And I was no novice when it came to being a rugby spectator, having watched my older brother play at Dartmouth.
What I learned in that first season, and in the years that followed, was that safety comes first. When I came to know the South Burlington coaching staff – Tiff Renaud, Tree Bertram and Kevin O’Brien – and watched the quality of officiating at youth rugby matches, it was clear that this was something that was built into the game – both in the rules and in the culture. Also built into the game was respect, sportsmanship and camaraderie.
And about playing with no pads – you tend to be less reckless hitting your opponent when you’ve got no protection yourself.
The youth rugby program is focused on teaching novice player the game – there’s little opportunity to play rugby in Vermont before high school. I also love many students – especially young women – came to the program having had little or no experience in other sports. Imagine choosing a game as physical as rugby as your initiation into organized sports. That such students felt safe and welcomed says much about the game and the coaches.
That’s why I had no qualms when Hiro talked his younger brother Yuki – much smaller – to join him on the team three years later.
The captains on the field are held responsible for the conduct of their teammates. They are the only ones allowed to approach the officials. The the ref will brook no bad behavior from the sideline, either. I’ve seen play stopped at VYRA matches, while the official told parents on the field to behave.
Then there’s the social at the end of the game, when the home team sets out food and drink for players of both sides, giving players who had been fierce opponents on the field just minutes before to end the day as a group of young people united by a love for the game.
Hiro and Yuki played together for only one year, Yuki as scrumhalf and Hiro as flyhalf – the two positions that restart the play from a scrum, sort of like the center and quarterback. On the field, they each developed a level of focus, intensity and leadership that I’d not seen before.
The team, too, developed over the years. During Hiro’s four years at SBHS, I’m not sure they ever scored an outright win. In Yuki’s senior year, the team won the state championship, a game Hiro was on hand to see and celebrated as much as any of the active players.
As a parent, I can’t thank rugby enough for what my sons learned from the game and how they grew on the field. But seeing my two boys play even for one season as teammates was the greatest gift.