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No-contact sport becomes a big hit


Pat Walsh received an unusual invitation on the first day of his first job in 1973.

Walsh was beginning work at Procter & Gamble in downtown Baltimore, and some of his new colleagues asked him to come to rugby practice after work. The Baltimore native, who now lives in Linthicum, wasn't much of a sports guy, except for playing some pick-up basketball here and there, and he knew almost nothing about rugby.

But he went to the practice, joined the team and rugby soon became a passion.

Walsh, 52, played the rough, fast, English ancestor of American football for about 26 years. He's also become a driving force in making rugby better known in Anne Arundel County, as well as throughout Maryland.

Walsh started the Andover Apaches, one of two county youth teams that play during the summer, and also began the Potomac Rugby Union Youth League, which has about 600 players throughout Central Maryland. The Potomac group also has adult teams and conducts competition at the college and high school levels.

Cape St. Claire is home to the other Anne Arundel County youth team this summer. Other teams play in Carroll, Howard and Montgomery counties, and in Northern Virginia.

Walsh said that more than 50 boys and girls are playing the sport in Anne Arundel this summer.

Instead of the contact form of the sport most people know about, Walsh helped get a two-hand tag version of the game going. Rather than yanking an opponent carrying the ball to the ground to take over possession, a defender need only to touch the ball carrier with two hands to stop play.

"About 95 percent of the kids who join have never been involved with the sport," Walsh said. "The noncontact rule allows them to learn the game with reduced physicality."

His youth teams also play with seven players on a side, not the 15 of the adult game. Teams have been growing over the past seven years.

"It's one of those things where I didn't - at the beginning - say, 'This is going to explode,'" said Walsh, an engineering manager with Northrop Grumman Corp. "We had a model that could be duplicated."

The model involved hooking up with a local recreation and parks organization with an established name in youth sports. Hence, the Andover Apaches, a group that also has programs in football, cheerleading, lacrosse, wrestling and rugby.

The league is for children ages 7 to 14 and began play in 1997, although the first team started on its own two years before that. The league started with four teams; there are now 15. Competition runs from late June until the end of August with championships in the under-11 and under-15 age groups, along with some under-17 winners.

Walsh said the end-of-season tournaments are arranged by a blind draw after the completion of their regular season. Teams don't keep official scores in the regular-season competition but work at learning the skills and complexities of the game.

Robert Martin of Ferndale quickly became a fan of two-hand tag rugby. His sons Justin, 14, and Joshua, 12, are members of the Apaches for the second summer.

"I like the touch version of it for a 12-year-old, because [the game] can get pretty intense," Martin said. "I don't think [my sons] would play rugby if they were being smacked around on the ground."

Justin said he is not a big sports person but that the rugby bug bit him quickly. He expects to be playing for a while.

"I'm not a very violent person," the Archbishop Spalding High School student said. "I don't like to tackle people. [This game] is not just brute strength. It's also speed and agility, and you've got to plan ahead."

Steve Heslop knows more about rugby than the Martins do because he played the tackle version for a club at the University of Maryland that was second in the country.

But his daughter Sarah, 13, a pupil at Lindale Middle School, is the one who wanted to play this sport when she saw signs about it last year.

"I've always been interested in rougher sports, like football and stuff like that," she said. "I like that it's different and not many people have heard about it. I'm hoping one day it will get more attention like football does."

She's now in her second season with the Apaches and is one of six girls playing the sport there. Her father likes the fact that she's making friends and also learning a difficult game in a much easier style.

"They're teaching the concept of the game without the contact," Heslop said. "Rugby is a big teamwork type of game, where everyone has to work together."

The teamwork becomes even more of a factor when playing the two-hand tag version. Everyone has a bigger role and must do more to help on the field. In fact, Pat Walsh brushes off talk of how important tackling is to rugby.

"Tackle isn't what makes rugby rugby," Walsh said. "It's not like football and basketball, where every down the play gets called by the coach [or] the coach yells out every play. In rugby, for 75 percent of the game, the kids have to make decisions on the run, because they don't have the pressure of the tackle."

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