During the golden hour of Thursday evening, the players of the Austin Blacks rugby team turn onto the winding gravel road leading to the hidden gem known as Burr Field, the team’s home grounds. About a half hour before practice starts, some of the guys head over to the clubhouse — the common area where players can hang out together or grab a quick snack — and as 7 p.m. nears, they trickle onto the field and begin warming up. With the Western Club Championships coming up the following weekend, the team is eager to get started.
If you’re from Texas, the land of football, you’re probably familiar with watching players throwing around an oval-shaped ball and hurling themselves into tackles, but it might not be as common to see them doing so with little to no padding nor helmets.
However, according to Stevie Swindall, one of the head coaches for the Austin Blacks, “Austin seems to be a hotbed in the last few years.” While pockets of rugby emerge throughout the U.S., from the northeast regions all the way to the west coast, the sport has also been gaining major traction among athletes in Central Texas.
“When we first got here, the biggest representation was the California teams…Now, we’re seeing at the national level that Texas is a hotbed where it wasn’t really five years ago, so I think our club has been a big part in changing the landscape,” says Tane Jericevich, another head coach for the Austin Blacks.
However, where Swindall and Jericevich come from, rugby is far from uncommon. Growing up in Scotland, the two coaches began playing rugby before the age of 10 — typical for most children in their home country.
“We met years ago — too many years ago — playing back… in Italy,” Swindall says, “And (Jericevich) came out to Austin first and loved it and persuaded me to come out a year later. That was five years ago, and we’re still here.”
According to popular belief, rugby was born in 1823 when William Webb Ellis, a student at Rugby School in Warwickshire, England, decided to defy the conventions of the day, which held that players were only allowed to kick the ball forward. As it’s written on a commemorative stone at Rugby School, Ellis “with a fine disregard for the rules of football…first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game.” Soon after, Cambridge University adopted the game and established its first team as well as a set of local rules. From the university, rugby quickly gained popularity among several boarding schools and clubs, and in 1971, the Rugby Football Union was founded in London, with the first ever international match played between England and Scotland later that year.
Ranked as one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S. by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, rugby has grown exponentially over the past decade. According to World Rugby, in 2016 alone, “the total number of registered players increased from 2.82 million to 3.2 million, while the total number of non-registered rugby players rose from 4.91 million to 5.3 million.” Additionally, a 2018 study conducted by Nielsen Sports found that rugby now has a fan base of 338 million people, with 33 million fans in the U.S.
Thanks in part to the Austin Blacks Rugby Club, founded in 1967 as the first club in the southwestern United States, rugby in Austin has experienced a significant growth in popularity and participation. Since then, Austin has seen the emergence of a number of other rugby clubs, including the Austin Huns and the Austin Valkyries, as well as Austin Elite, the city’s only professional rugby team.
“It has grown exponentially in Austin, because we’re in one of the nine places in America that has a professional team now,” says Mark Brewerton, a New Zealand native and player for the Austin Blacks since 1997. “And I see the growth rate is only going one way — up.”
Brewerton says there are a handful of factors contributing to this growth, including the acceptance of rugby sevens into the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics — its first appearance in the Olympics since 1924 at the Paris Games. Additionally, Brewerton says the U.S. National Sevens rugby team, an abbreviated form of the game, is doing very well on the world stage, currently ranked second in the World Series.
However, it isn’t just the game itself nor the U.S. team’s success that’s drawing locals to rugby. For many players and fans of rugby, it’s all about the culture.
“I think that’s one of the most attractive aspects of playing rugby,” Brewerton says. “The comradery, the play-hard, you know, the belt-the-crap-out-of-each-other, but then help each other up, and then after the game, shake hands and have a beer or just have a discussion.”
This culture creates a sort of universal language, enabling players and fans all over the world to connect with one another through their love of the game.
“Every time I go overseas…I always google ‘rugby club,’ and you’ll find the local bar or the local place, and you go there and immediately you have a bunch of people you have something in common with, something you can talk about and something you can discuss. The culture and the comradery is a very big aspect of rugby,” Brewerton says.
For the Austin Blacks, it’s this culture and passion for the game that brings many players back year after year. With players ranging in age from early 20s to mid 50s, it’s evident the club has fostered a comradery that’s hard to come by — and hard to part with.
Watching one of the players walking by, Jericevich laughs and says, “He’s like 50 — how old is he? And he’s had like four ACL surgeries in his 40s and he’s still playing.”
“He’s like a blackbelt in karate,” Swindall says, “so he’s real flexible and still does the splits when he warms up — it’s freaky. He’s an athlete.”
But for teams like the Austin Blacks, age is no boundary for these players. These guys do it for the love of the game, as well as the bond they share with their teammates. Swindall and Jericevich say this comradery is especially evident within their club, and it extends not just to their players, but also to the community, families and friends who support the team.
“The good thing about America that’s kind of different than back home in Europe is that the families are much more included in rugby here,” Swindall says. “Wives and girlfriends are all welcome — they come out and it’s like a big family here at the rugby field…Everybody brings their [kids]to the playscape. Normally we have a food truck and stuff — it’s a great day out. There’s obviously some beer and stuff, but who doesn’t like to watch a bunch of young, fit men in short shorts hit each other?”