Carter Kinkead’s introduction to rugby rings true to many of his Clark County Warriors teammates.
Kinkead, a Camas High School senior, played football for the Papermakers and lacrosse for a club team, but he was looking for a new challenge. He’d heard of rugby but didn’t know much about it.
“I just thought rugby would be a good change of pace,” Kinkead said. “But the first time I picked up a rugby ball, I loved it.”
A year after taking up the sport, Kinkead signed a letter of intent with Central Washington University to play rugby for a program that recently qualified for the national collegiate championships. It was a short, strange ride, but one that Kinkead is thankful to have taken.
“I’d planned on playing college football somewhere, but that didn’t work out,” he said after a recent Warriors practice at Doc Harris Stadium. “I sent some footage to Central, and just look where I am now. I’ve always believed that everything happens for a reason, and that hard work and dedication pays off.”
A few miles away at Laurin Middle School in Battle Ground, Paige Fallon shares the same passion Kinkead described. Fallon is the captain for the Clark County Cyclones girls club team, and she recently signed a letter of intent with national powerhouse Life University in Marietta, Ga.
Fallon’s siblings all played rugby, but she had no interest in playing the sport. The Prairie High School senior fancied herself a soccer and basketball player and only turned out for rugby as a freshman because her father, Troy, was the coach.
“I did summer 7s before my freshman year, and I was one of those players that all coaches dread having on their team,” she recalled. “I didn’t go to practice. I was not committed at all.”
Obligation soon turned into obsession, though. Like Kinkead, Fallon underwent a similar epiphany. Soon, she was attending USA Rugby camps, trying out – and making – national teams, and playing for Atavus, a Seattle-based sports academy that has joined forces with USA Rugby for player development.
None of her success has surprised her father. “I knew she had tons of potential,” Troy said. “A lot of the girls out here have it. I don’t see anything better for teenage girls than something that gives them confidence and makes them feel good about themselves in a world that doesn’t always do that.”
Maybe that was what ultimately appealed to Paige, or maybe it was the competition. She’s not sure what eventually turned her on to rugby.
“But now, I’m in love with rugby,” Paige said. “And I couldn’t imagine doing another sport.”
Rugby is not a well-known sport in the United States, but it’s one of the most popular sports worldwide. The website Total Sportek conducted a study using 13 different criteria to determine the world’s 25 most popular sports – rugby came in at No. 6, just behind track and field but ahead of Formula One auto racing, boxing, volleyball and golf.
“In my culture, rugby is a big sport,” said Aisake Vara, a Fort Vancouver High School senior and a native of the Kingdom of Tonga who grew up in New Zealand, both major rugby powers. “After graduation, I’m planning to go back and pick up the sport there, where the competition is strong, then come back in a couple of years and try out for a college team.”
Ian Cleveland’s passion for rugby runs so deep, he drives 85 miles one-way twice a week from his home in Dufur, Ore., to practice with the Warriors. A home-schooled senior who was an all-state defensive tackle for the state champion Rangers football team, his mother is a South Africa native whose influence helped Ian get started playing rugby as cross-training for football.
Cleveland recently traveled to England, where he joined 15 other US high school rugby players to learn more about Premiership Rugby, the top English league, and bring what they learned back to their home clubs. He beat out more than a couple hundred applicants, mostly from East Coast schools, and saw first-hand the English love for rugby and how big the sport is in the nation.
“Over here, it hasn’t reached that level of popularity,” said Cleveland, who’ll put his rugby career on hold in the fall when he joins the George Fox University football program.
And therein lies the rub for those who love rugby in the US. Football is king, while rugby is that strange sport that shows up from time to time on television or at the Olympics.
“People are always curious when I tell them I play rugby,” Kinkeid said. “A lot of people have heard about it, but they know nothing about it and want to learn.”
Once they learn, Vara and his teammates are convinced they’ll be hooked, same as them.
“Most people are scared of the game,” Vara said. “But once they try it, they love it.”
Both the Warriors and Cyclones play in the elite high school division of Rugby Oregon’s spring 15s league (think of 15s like 11-man football, and the 7s played at the most recent Summer Olympics like 8-man). The Warriors are 4-1 after beating the Salem Rugby Lost Boys 28-21 on April 21, while the Cyclones remained unbeaten at 4-0 after a 56-20 romp over Grant the same afternoon. Both are in contention to make the state playoffs starting May 12 – the Warriors won Rugby Oregon state titles in 2013 and 2014.
Rugby is not an official sport at either the high school (WIAA or OSAA) or college (NCAA or NAIA) level. Boys high school rugby has two divisions for single-school teams as well as the club division, while the high school girls league includes both single-school and club teams.
The Cyclones, like the Warriors, boast players from throughout Clark County. Fallon is from Prairie. Rylie Anderson is a junior at Battle Ground High School who only started playing a year ago to join Fallon and some of her friends on the pitch.
Others took up rugby as part of a family tradition. Ashleigh Harris, a Union High School sophomore, watched her brother play for the Titans and thought to herself, “OK, this is cool. Maybe I want to try this,” while Amelia Brabac, a Hockinson High School freshman, joined the fledgling girls middle school program after tagging along to her brother’s middle-school games.
Many of them play other sports for their high schools but appreciate rugby’s physicality.
“I had never played a contact sport before,” said Brabac, who played volleyball for the Hawks in the fall. “I like the contact, and rugby is really good for that.”
Anderson, a soccer player in the fall for the Tigers, agreed. “I’ve always thought of myself as a soccer player. I’ve been playing since I was 4 or 5. But in soccer, you get carded for anything. I like how much more physical rugby is.”
Sounds like rugby has found itself another convert.