By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (January 23, 2016) — There are no scholarships to be awarded, no jumbotrons with video replays or sponsor logos and no cheerleaders flip-flopping around yelling, “Go State.”
There are fans – between 100 and 200 and anyway – and some seem passionate. Or perhaps that’s just because Saturday’s game was between Tarleton State and Midwestern State, and, as a former Texan basketball player put it on Twitter, even if those schools met in chess it would be a rivalry.
But those who cared to turn out despite temperatures in the high 40s and low 50s Saturday all seemed to at least share a certain level of curiosity about this sport few of them have ever seen before.
They are screaming – as Tarleton director for student engagement Lathes Towns did Saturday – things like “touchdown,” then when realizing that isn’t correct, instead shouting, “Rugby Down.”
They are learning actual terms, too, like scrum, ruck, try, in-goal and ground.
Yes, rugby has found its way to Tarleton State University.
“It’s contact-oriented and is all about speed and skills,” said team captain Hunter Turner, a junior from Dublin. “Anyone with a sports background seems to love rugby.”
It’s quickly apparent why.
Think football minus the pads in terms of contact, tackling and even scoring, though points do add up slightly differently. Think soccer or line-ball, an offshoot of football, in terms of pace of play and of soccer again when it comes to the timing.
The bottom line – rugby combines the good of a lot of sports. Or maybe a lot of sports have borrowed the good from rugby. The sport was invented in the 1820s, after all. That’s four decades before the first American football between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869.
History, or just myth depending on who you believe, tells us rugby was born in 1823, when William Webb Ellis, a student at Rugby School in Rugby, Warwickshire, England, interrupted a game of soccer by picking the ball up and running with it. To this day, the Rugby World Cup is known as the William Webb Ellis Trophy.
The first rugby team, according to TheGuardian.com, was organized in 1839 at Cambridge by Arthur Pell, who also drew up the Cambridge Rules. The Rugby Football Union was founded in London in 1871.
It took 193 years for the sport to spread from Rugby to Stephenville, but it’s taken only five short months for many at Tarleton to catch what is known popularly as “white-line fever.”
“We’ve got about five players who have played the game before and everyone else hasn’t, so we started from scratch,” says Chris Thackwray, one of the Tarleton coaches who played rugby semiprofessionally in England. “We’re pretty good from where we started.”
Thackwray, 57, has been involved in rugby for 50 years.
“I started playing rugby when I was seven, and now I’m 57. I love the game,” said Thackwray, who played in England’s National League until he was 42.
The oilfield is what brought Thackwray to Texas, and he retired to Stephenville. Then he learned Kenneth Esterhuizen, a former player and coach in Cape Town, South Africa, was looking to start a team at Tarleton.
Esterhuizen says it was missionary work that brought him to the Stephenville area, though Thackwray joked that his fellow coach was actually a “rugby missionary.”
Esterhuizen knew he was coming into a college town, and contacted Tarleton Intramural Sports about starting a rugby team.
“I found there was interest through intramural sports and we put the word out,” said Esterhuizen. “That was in August, and here we are.”
The Texans split a pair of friendlies to get started, and are 3-0 in Lone Star League action after dominating an overmatched club team from Midwestern, 97-3, on their home pitch at the Tarleton intramural fields Saturday. That sets up the true litmus test – a battle with LeTourneau University, the only other team that remains unbeaten in league play. LeTourneau will make the trip to Stepenville from Longview next Saturday, with kickoff set for noon.
There’s been a lot of hard work bringing rugby so far in such a short time at Tarleton.
“It’s actually the best brotherhood in sports I’ve ever been a part of. We train together, diet together, practice every day together and hang out all the time,” says Turner. “When you play sports like football or rugby and butt heads together you create a special bond that’s different than any other kind.”
Thackwray and Esterhuizen aren’t satisfied with Tarleton just being competitive in the Second Division of the Lone Star League.
“There is a First Division and a Second Division, and we want to get into the First Division and then hopefully to the Division I semifinals,” said Esterhuizen. “We hope to play Division I next year.”
They also hope growth of the sport locally extends beyond the Tarleton campus.
“We’ve talked to the school about starting a high school program, and we’re looking at the senior side, as well, so when these guys are done with college they can keep playing,” said Thackwray. “Rugby around the world is played at all ages in clubs. Guys even my age are still playing.”
And now, they’re playing it at Tarleton.
“It only took a semester and I was hooked,” said Turner. “And it was easy to get guys to want to play. As soon as they give it a shot they fall in love with it. It’s a great sport.”
TheFlashToday.com photos by JESSIE HORTON