Youth rugby on the rise in Maryland

Pat Walsh doesn't know how it happened, but somehow it became his responsibility to jumpstart youth rugby in Maryland.

While playing in a men's league in Baltimore, one of his teammates told him to work with the local parks and recreation committees to start some rugby leagues.

It wasn't easy, because Walsh said a lot of Americans think rugby is just a more dangerous version of football.

But more than 15 years later, Walsh has helped create programs all over Maryland, sparking the interest of youth and their parents across the state.

"Our biggest concern was parents thinking that it's football without pads," said Walsh, the youth director of the Potomac Rugby Union, the governing body for all rugby in northern Virginia, D.C., Maryland and parts of Pennsylvania. "But we want to get them to understand the rules at a young age and transition into the full-contact game later."

Walsh, the former U.S. Rugby Youth Director, said he tried to get parents in to watch matches and spark an interest, which in turn allowed those people to start their own programs all across Maryland.

Now Baltimore City, Harford, Carroll, Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, St. Mary's and Montgomery counties all have youth rugby programs established. There are programs in northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., as well.

"I have no reason not to be happy with the progress," Walsh said. "I have no apprehension either way. My biggest concern was could we do it and enjoy it. Every year we have more kids and more matches."

The Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association now recognizes rugby as a varsity sport, although just five teams play it at the high school level.

Walsh estimates that the entire rugby-playing population in Maryland doesn't equal the amount of kids participating in basketball or football in any given county, but relatively, he is happy with the amount of signups each year.

Walsh said there are two different approaches to rugby by those new to the game. Some assume it's dangerous and never want their kids to go near it for fear of injury, while other parents jump at the chance to have their kids try a new sport and experience something different athletically.

"All you can do is make it available and find out who's interested," he said. "I didn't expect it to get this big, but I'm happy how it's going because I've got players coming back remembering me because I coached them or refereed them and they're telling me they're still having fun with it."

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