LSU Rugby Club President Westley LaBorde loves his sport and believes it is on the rise in the United States, but from erroneous comparisons to football to head-scratching questions from classmates, mainstream rugby is still a long way off.
“I get asked a lot, ‘Is that the one with the sticks and helmets?’” LaBorde said.
Rugby resembles a mixture of the physicality of football with the constant action and flowing style of soccer. Players need the stamina to run for 80 minutes and the strength to spend that time tackling the opposition.
Each team consists of 15 players, eight forwards and seven backs. Forwards spend most of the game gaining possession of the ball with their hulking size while the backs use speed and agility to get the ball across the endline to score a try, the rugby equivalent of a touchdown.
Economics freshman Bradley Ashlock got his first taste of rugby at a recent open practice and came away with a newfound respect.
“It’s a lot more in depth than I thought it would be, like there is a lot more to it than just throwing the ball around and tackling the person with it,” Ashlock said.
When one team commits a minor infraction, the game stops and the official calls for a scrum. The forwards from each team lock together to form two packs that then crash into each other, pushing to reach the ball that is rolled between them.
The scrum is one of the most iconic scenes in rugby, and at the professional level, the collision can generate over a ton of force, according to a study conducted by the International Research Council on Biomechanics and Injury.
Senior Ryan Michell said leverage is the key to winning a scrum.
“When two teams bind up it’s all about position,” Michell said. “The lower side wins nine times out of ten.”
Since the players wear no pads, Americans often overestimate the number and severity of injuries sustained in rugby matches.
Coach Bob Causey played rugby for LSU in the late ’70s before joining the USA national team for 10 years. During his time as a player, he never saw many of the catastrophic injuries that have become so common in football.
“It’s like they say: rugby is classified as a contact sport while football is a collision sport,” Causey said. “Playing against the toughest competition in the world, maybe one guy goes off with injury [per match].”
Rugby attracts many former football players looking to feed their competitive fires, but they quickly discover that without pads, contact is not quite so fun.
Microbiology senior Brette Campbell said the differences in tackling technique between the two sports create problems for recruits with football backgrounds, and often they only learn by experience, like one eager freshman from 2011.
“In his first full contact scrimmage, he broke his nose twice, so he learned pretty quickly that you can’t just go face first into a tackle,” Campbell said.
Despite all the misconceptions about how the sport is played, rugby is experiencing growth around the country. Many of the players on LSU’s roster hail from powerful high school or club programs from New Orleans, Houston or California.
With the concussion epidemic driving some people away from football, wildlife ecology freshman Zach Stratton said he doesn’t see why rugby wouldn’t be an attractive alternative.
“Rugby has a bad reputation for injuries, but really it is just bumps and bruises,” Stratton said. “For me, it’s better [than football] because you aren’t just recklessly running into crap.”