What do you know about Rugby?
Its popularity soars in countries like Australia, England, Ireland, and New Zealand but many in the United States are unfamiliar with the sport. A precursor to American football, rugby utilizes a similar ball while following a style of play more like soccer. Players must advance the ball down field as they avoid being tackled by the opposing team for 80 non-stop minutes of action.
There are no pads, huddles or forward passes, instead players lateral the ball to each other, fight for possession in scrums—formations comparable to that of offensive and defensive lines—and attempt to score by touching the ball down across the goal line in what is called a try. And all this is done by the same 15 players; no substitutions or special packages.
Rugby has gained momentum in the States with a number of collegiate clubs for both men and women, but some might be surprised to find that there’s a club right here in the Valley.
The Stanislaus-Modesto Rugby Club, better known as the Harlots, has been around since 1974.
“The thing with rugby, it’s a real tight knit community. If you come in from another city or another country the first thing you do as a rugby player is to find out if your town has a rugby team,” Harlot head coach and player Paul Coyler said.
Coyler, a rugby player for the past 25 years, did just that when he moved from England to Turlock 10 years ago after marrying his wife Monica. He was surprised to find the Harlots but was quick to assimilate into the family. Five years ago he assumed head coaching duties and has since helped the Harlots remain formidable competitors in the Division III Northern California Rugby Football Union and finish fourth in last year’s National Championships.
“As soon as I got here I looked for a local team and amazingly we had one,” Coyler said. “Rugby, it’s almost like a fraternity but with a sport.”
The Harlots displayed their unique brotherhood last Saturday when a crowd of family, friends, and former players flocked to the Christoffersen storm basin to watch as they hosted the Sierra Foothills in a game meant to celebrate the memory of Matt Bradford, a 29-year-old former Harlot who moved to Ireland some time ago and died only last week. The lasting connection between players isn’t just regulated to teammates though. As is rugby tradition, the hosting team takes the opposition out for a social event complete with food and drinks after each game.
“I’ve never played a game in 20 years where that hasn’t happened,” Coyler said. “That’s the difference between a team and a club.”
More and more people are beginning to crave that camaraderie, too. The Harlots have attracted a number of young athletes this year. Some are former high school football players new to rugby while others got a taste of the game in college; all of them from the Stanislaus area.
“We lost a lot of old, experienced guys to retirement—it’s a tough sport, eventually you have to stop playing at some point—and a couple guys moved away from the area, but this year it’s not looking too bad. We have at least five to six kids who are young; in their first year of MJC,” Coyler said. “It’s more of a rebuilding year, trying to get more numbers and more experience for the new guys.”
“We are always open to new recruits, at all times throughout the year,” he added.
And although it might seem counterintuitive, rugby’s lack of helmets and padding has helped make the sport a true athletic alternative as parents become increasingly more concerned with injuries involved with football. With less padding come decreased speed and an emphasis on technique rather than violent collisions. A youth team has already been formed in the area by a former Harlot named the Stanislaus Rattlers.
“There’s a lot more technique involved. You have to wrap, you can’t just shoulder charge and block,” Coyler said. “Without helmets and pads there’s not so much head on head contact so it cuts down a lot on injuries. You learn pretty quick how to tackle properly.”
Turlockers eager to catch a Harlot game or those interested in potentially joining the club can watch the Harlots take on the Sacramento Blackhawks at the Christoffersen storm basin—the Harlots’ home field—at 1 p.m. March 9 as they continue their quest for a post-season berth.