First local youth rugby team hitting the field

About 15 local boys turned out to play on Walla Walla's first youth rugby team, which formed in January.

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The Jesters, Walla Walla's new U-19 rugby team, competed in their first home game against the Valley Joeys, a Seattle team, on Whitman College's Ankeny Field March 13. The Jesters play the Pendleton Sasquatch this Saturday.

WALLA WALLA - Most games end with a handshake, then the opposing teams pile on to their buses, only to meet again on the field at a future date.

But rugby - one of the more aggressive, physical team games - ends differently.

After a rugby match, both teams come together for a barbeque or social, hosted, at the youth level, by parents of players.

So it was for the Jesters Rugby Club, a local under-19 team of about 15 local boys from high schools across the valley after a March 13 match with the Valley Joeys, a team based in Seattle.

All 30-some young men and friends, family members and fans in attendance chowed down on a feast laid out by Jesters parents on the Whitman College campus.

This was the first barbeque the Jesters had hosted.

After all, it was the first home match of the Jesters' inaugurual season.

Coach Eric McAlvey leads the effort to bring rugby to Walla Walla. McAlvey is the Whitman men's rugby club coach, and began the Jesters late last year - too late, as it turned out, for them to be part of the regular season's schedule.

The boys started practice in late January and had their first-ever match a few weeks later in Pendleton.

"I love all sports," McAlvey said. "But what's unique about rugby is that it's the only sport I know of that you get together with the other team and have a barbeque and shake their hand. It's a bond with that team and your teammates - there's no other reason to play. There aren't school teams, there's no professional glory in it. You go get muddy and sweaty because you love the game."

That camaraderie is why McAlvey wants to introduce local kids to rugby.

So far, they're appreciative.

"I really like that everyone has a chance to score," said Justin Meyer, a DeSales student. "It's more dynamic... there are no time limits or substitutions, and everyone gets a chance to hold the ball. I'm a (football) lineman, but I feel more like a running back in rugby."

Meyer plays football for DeSales, but the rigid line positions in football mean he's not usually the one scoring points.

Rugby doesn't have the job descriptions of its American descendent, football. Although there are positions and lines of play - various wings and lineman, for example - any player can end up with the ball and score in just about any instance.

"Everyone can run, kick, tackle and pass," McAlvey said. "I think that makes it more fun."

Rugby is a precursor to football and is popular in much of Europe, and more popular than anything else in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. It looks like a cross between football and soccer, only with football's tackles and soccer's padding. Each team has 15 players on the field at all times. There are eight forwards and seven backs - and no substitutions. Each youth player is on the field for the full 70-minute game. If they come off once, they're off for good.

Clive Kaiser, an assistant coach and game-day ref for the Jesters, has worked on the field with McAlvey for about three years. Kaiser is South African and grew up with the sport.

"It's ingrained in me," he said. "In South Africa, you're born with a rugby ball in your hand."

Watching the Jesters - almost all who had no previous experience with the sport - has been rewarding, he said.

"They've come a long way since they started practicing," he said. "They're really growing as players."

In a game with no breaks, aside from a brief halftime, exhaustion and injuries can be problems.

Youth rugby players wear light padding - jerseys, shorts, cleats, a mouth guard and sometimes a brace across the shoulders to protect their collarbones.

McAlvey, a Whitman alum, does his best to teach his players to hit legally and fall correctly.

Practice time often includes tackling correctly, Kaiser said.

"We're teaching them safe technique," he said.

McAlvey, a former pro rugby player, knows injuries can happen. A broken femur ended his time as a player on the field. So safety is taken seriously.

Parents are appreciative, but know that it's still a contact sport.

"There are always injuries, in any sport," Michael Meyer, Justin's father, said. "They have to be conditioned and cautious, make sure they don't do anything that can hurt them, but I don't see this as any worse than any other."

The Jesters haven't yet won a match, but with only a couple months of practice - compared to years for some teams, such as the Valley Joeys, who've been around since 1987 - they're making progress.

"This is our first year, so we're not all there yet," said Fernando Garcia, a Wa-Hi student. "We're practicing."

Garcia is a kicker for the Blue Devils football team and former soccer player, swimmer and wrestler, but likes rugby because he's not waiting on the bench and he can handle the ball.

"Unlike other sports, I feel like I'm really part of the team," he said. "Everyone's out doing something here - even if they're not athletic."

Garcia, 16, has three years of eligibility with the Jesters left. Right now, he plans to continue playing with them, and would like to play at some level in college.

That's fine with his mother, Wendy Gonzalez.

"I told Eric, I have no problem doing anything for the team," Gonzalez said. "If you can make my son feel this good I'm happy to step in."

Rugby Washington is the governing rugby body in the state. There are about 18 youth teams, and all but three of them are on the West side.

Wenatchee and Yakima have teams, but the closest team to Walla Walla is the Sasquatch Rugby Club in Pendleton. The Sasquatch were the Jesters' first opponent.

USA Rugby and Rugby Washington charge all players a mandatory $65 fee for playing. The Jesters have their own $90 fee, for uniforms and gear, hosting costs and transportation.

Although this season is almost over, McAlvey is looking to next year's team. Some of the current players will age out and their positions, as well as the openings this year, need to be filled.

The Jesters have players from Walla Walla, Dayton and DeSales high schools. A few Whitman College students are also eligible, and Whitman's club members help with practices, McAlvey said.

The Jesters play their final game of the season against the Pendleton Sasquatch in Pendleton at 1 p.m. Saturday. There might be a final match April 10, but schedule details have not been confirmed.

Although the Jesters are new to rugby, they plan on being around a long time.

"Eric wants to make history in Walla Walla," said Gonzalez. "He wants to bring rugby here. I immediately put my son's name in, but it's so new I don't know what to expect next."

By the end of the match, which the Joeys won, both coaches decided the "Man of the Match," in this case a Seattle player. But the Valley coach was full of praise for the fledgling Walla Walla team.

"You played hard, you never gave up and I see a lot of good stuff out there," Joeys coach Justin Heinen said. "You're committed, and it shows."

And McAlvey is committed to seeing the Jesters take off.

For more information, contact him at 509-876-6100 or via email at mcalvey@charter.net.

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