Saturday morning in Houston, Texas and it’s already too hot for rugby or anything really.
Later, Ireland will struggle to beat the US Eagles 15-12 underneath the relative comfort of cloud cover but there’s no such luck for the other travelling team in town: representatives of Bridgend College in South Wales who are finishing their tour of Texas with a game just outside the city centre at the home of the St Thomas High School football team. They’ll win 54-0 against a Texas select XV but that’s not too important. The game is growing at an alarming rate in the Lone Star State in spite of the historical dominance of American football at all levels.
“We need these games to show our players where we are aiming to be in terms of technical ability,” the president of Texas Rugby Rick Marshall tells me underneath the stand which stretches almost the length of one of the sidelines.
Nearby, a huge Texas-style barbecue has been fired up to feed the visitors and locals while everyone happily mingles and looks forward to the Test match most of them will be attending hours later.
The young men from Wales are out on their feet but there’s an extra element of significance to this game. Most of them will be graduating from the sports college in a month and will never play for Bridgend again. Mild-mannered coach Gareth Nicholas is still a little shook after the poignancy of their final team photo is given a comic twist when his captain Tom Bluck gives him the “Gatorade bath”, that fixture of the post-game in American sport.
“It’s a term of endearment,” he says smiling. “It’s quite an emotional moment. It’s not the best or most talented team I’ve had but they’re by far the hardest working. They give you a lot of themselves.”
This is the college’s fifth tour to the US, an initiative which Nicholas himself pushed for.
“I wanted the boys to travel, give them a life experience. Rugby is just a conduit to that and it gives them focus. It’s great for them too because they’re like novelties when they roll into town. They’re a touring side.”
Texas, unlike South Wales, is new to rugby and the challenges for administrators like Marshall begin and end with the incredible dominance enjoyed by high school football. But in spite of all that, in the six years since they affiliated with US Rugby, the number of teams in Texas has risen from 18 to 90.
“The growth has been pretty phenomenal,” he says between the long list of chores that comes with hosting a game like this. “It’s not hard when a kid gets a ball and they run with it for them to love the sport. They absolutely fall in love with it. The contact and the aggression mirrors football and it gives them an additional season. We only play in the spring so we don’t compete with American football in the fall.
“Football in Texas is on the level of religion. We have high school football games where 40 to 50,000 people show up. It’s a pretty tough competitor.
“Most of what you run into is coaches not understanding the sport and the fear of injury. It’s just about educating the football community about the benefits of rugby, of how we can help in the overall conditioning of the kids. Taking pads off the kids, you take away the overall fear. We teach them to tackle better, teamwork.
“There’s a lot that goes into it but at the end of the day, the biggest benefit is the physical conditioning of the kids. There is far less stoppage in rugby games than in football.”
Marshall has no problem proving to his youngsters that America needs to catch up quickly. They have launched an initiative in school districts and flag rugby will become part of the rotation of PE games enjoyed by Texas schoolchildren.
For someone who never played the game and was reluctant to allow his own teenage son to join a team (“all I knew about it was the drinking and the keg parties at college”), he is a passionate advocate of the sport’s greatness. That all stems from finally watching a few games and slowly becoming convinced.
Which is why the boost of an international rugby Test taking place in the city he was born and raised in is always a shot in the arm.
“It gives legitimacy and further credibility to the sport. People recognise that it is international. What’s greatly helped us is when it became an Olympic sport. Now coaches here know we’re for real.”
And then he adds gently, but with real intent: “Yes sir, we are.”
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