Urban Rugby Has an Impact, On and Off the Field

James Brunson

By James Brunson | September 29, 2015

Our high school rugby team, the North Philly Nomads, recently won $1,000 worth of Rhino Rugby equipment through Penn Mutual’s Rugby Spirit Contest. The kids put together the contest submission video. It was on their own initiative without any adult direction because they wanted to — they’re proud of the team and wanted to show the world how proud they are.

I have to say that I’m pretty proud, too. The initiative and leadership these kids have taken on proves how big an impact a sport like rugby can have on the lives of kids in an urban setting.

The Nomads started as a single-school program at Vaux High School in Philadelphia. One of the teachers at the school, Larry Conlan, had played rugby in high school himself and thought it was something that might be popular at Vaux. Ten kids showed up for the startup meeting, and the club began doing drills. Around that time, I had started my education career, but after devoting 13 years to playing rugby, I was looking to try coaching a team myself. Rugby PA put me in touch with Conlan and his boys, and I became their coach.

We played our first tournament in Delaware that year — the Subaru Sevens Tournament — and we won the plates division championship, which was basically coming in around 7th place in tournament. For kids to win something in an organized rugby tournament, who just a year before never even played organized rugby, was a huge morale booster.

From those ten kids that first year, we grew to about fifteen kids the next year. In addition to playing Subaru Sevens, we were also invited to play in the High School Rugby Championship (HSRC) which is the high school version of what has become the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship. The chance to play teams from all around the country — Utah, Massachusetts, and Indiana — was an eye-opening experience for the kids.

When Vaux High School closed in 2013 because of budget cuts, we decided to make the team a district-wide program, open to any kid in the district that wanted to play for us. From the devastation of closing a neighborhood high school, our rugby team was able to grow and have a bigger impact. This was the birth of the North Philly Nomads. It was at this time that our Rugby 15s program began. We are in one of the Rugby PA club divisions, playing teams from surrounding suburbs, from downtown to Allentown. Our program is growing and we have recently added two coaches, Lauren Murphy, who teaches in the district, and Kate Flanagan, a former collegiate champion.

The school district has been very supportive of us. Most high school teams charge kids about $200 to $300 a season. We don’t do that at all. Thanks to the district and donations from others, such as uniform tops donated by Canterbury North America, the only costs our kids incur are for their shorts, their mouth guards, and a t-shirt — about $40 to $50 overall. Even then, not all of our kids can afford that. I never want finances to be a reason for a kid not to play and fall in love with the game that I love. That’s not part of our purpose.

Rugby is a great game for young people. It is a game that requires a lot of discipline, helps them learn how to overcome adversity and enables them to see a sport that many people in their neighborhood would otherwise not be exposed to. If things don’t go your way, you get back in there and you give it another go.

I hear from a lot of parents who marvel at the growth they see in their child. One young man has lost 75 pounds since he joined the team, because he knows he has to be in great shape physically and mentally to be able to compete in this game. A lot of these kids were the sort that just blended into the walls at school, and now, they’re leaders, they’re vocal contributors in the classroom, they’re in student government, and they’re asking the principal to borrow the school’s video camera so they can make a video to win equipment for the team. The captain of our team this year once kept to himself and read comic books, but he ended up being the master of ceremony at graduation. Wins and losses come and go, but that sort of personal growth is something that you can’t put a score on.

All the adults involved in the team have an education background, and we stress academics with the kids. They have to do progress reports for us. We ask about their grades. We have study hall for those who are struggling, and we’re willing to do SAT prep. We’ve taken kids to colleges to see games, take a tour of the campus, and talk to the rugby players. This helps them visualize what it means to go to college and what you have to do to be a student athlete. We spent a weekend at Penn State’s rugby camp, and the kids had a blast there. Because of that, I’ve got a kid who’s now going to Penn State Berks with thoughts of transferring to main campus after two years to play rugby.

Our main focus in this is to give these kids the opportunity to have an outlet to express themselves and grow their confidence. Confidence in athletics often expands to become confidence in academics and then confidence in life. That’s our mission.

Our team’s very diverse. We have a lot of African Americans from around Philadelphia, but we have Puerto Rican and Haitian students on our team as well. I think we’re the most diverse group on the field, but we’ve shown that, while we might not look like the other area rugby teams, when we take the field, we’re going to be the part. We can love this game, too. I want to get to the point where we’re no longer the exception. Rugby’s growing, and urban rugby is growing with it.

In the future, we’d like to start a girls’ rugby program. We experimented with it this year, but it didn’t really take off as much as we wanted to. We’re going back to the drawing board and putting together a more focused effort. Hopefully next year, we will have a girls’ Nomads program going as well. I get a lot of flack from the girls that come around. They want to play, and I feel like I’m letting them down.

If you are reading this and would like to help by supporting our team, I invite you to email us at northphillyrugby@gmail.com. We’ll send you a sponsorship packet. There are different levels of sponsorship, even to sponsoring a mouth guard or a t-shirt for a student. We’re on a shoestring budget, but we make it. A little bit goes a long way.

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