By Oliver Lazenby
Rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States. The game, which is akin to football but with no forward passing, fewer pads and constant action, is catching on with new players of all ages in Whatcom County thanks to Chuckanut Bay Rugby.
Chuckanut Bay Rugby, Whatcom County’s recreational rugby club, is starting league play this month, but the league accepts new players at any time.
“It’s open enrollment,” said club president Joel Weisser. “We’re just looking to share the love of the sport with as many people as want to be involved.”
The growing league has added teams in recent years and now has opportunities for nearly anyone who wants to try their hand at tackling, tossing the elongated pigskin ball, or sprinting down a rugby field. A non-contact kindergarten through fifth grade team introduces young players to the game, and the league has positions for men and women of all ages on its contact teams.
The club has a lot of players from northern Whatcom County, especially Blaine and Ferndale, Weisser said. Its popularity in Blaine started with Brad Otto, a local football coach who helped turn his players on to rugby.
“He thought it would be a good addition for his football players,” Weisser said. “A couple of kids started coming out and enjoying it and it just kind of grew from there.”
Otto got involved with the league as a coach. Last year he coached Chuckanut Bay Rugby’s U17 boys team to a state championship.
Rugby was the sixth-fastest- growing sport in the United States in 2014, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s 2015 participation report. Weisser sees the sport’s growth locally.
“The Pacific Northwest is a little bit of a hotbed for some reason,” he said. “Our club has been in the forefront as far as pushing the envelope, adding more teams and younger teams.”
The sport got a boost in 2014 when Seahawks coach Pete Carroll released an instructional video on tackling that emphasized using a rugby-style tackle in football.
Rugby players don’t wear helmets and tackle with their shoulders rather than their heads, which is traditional in football. The Seahawks adapted this technique and used it to win the Super Bowl.
“Rugby players have taken the head out of the game and truly exemplify shoulder tackling,” Carroll said in the video.
The sport is also popular north of the border. HSBC’s World Rugby Sevens Series, a 16-team tournament that pits teams of seven against each other, rather than the usual 15, is coming to Vancouver, B.C., March 12-13.
Chuckanut Bay Rugby has traveled to England, Wales and Australia to play the game. Weisser stresses the community aspect of the sport, which started in the 1800s in England.
“The thing you’ll find out the second you step on a rugby team is we’re a true community,” Weisser said. “If you’re a rugby player in Whatcom County and you go to London and mention you’re a rugby player, someone’s going to invite you to a meal or take you to a rugby training.”
Everyone is welcome at Chuckanut Bay Rugby and experience isn’t necessary. Youth rugby training goes from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays at Whatcom Community College.
Learn more at chuckanutbayrugby.com.