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Central rugby team overcomes pain, learns finer points of the game

November 15, 2016

Though rugby does not enjoy the same popularity in America as football, that has not stopped the sport from taking off at high schools throughout Nebraska. Central students participate in the sport through Central’s rugby club.

Many students learn the sport through rugby club and have no prior knowledge of how the game is played. Central senior Hayden Hill was introduced to rugby by his upperclassmen friends as a sophomore, and joined the team in his junior year. “I really didn’t learn it until I started playing,” Hill said.

Senior Casey O’Brien has played since his freshman year, when his older brother encouraged him to join the club. For O’Brien, learning the new sport was not difficult. Most of the people on the rugby team have a minimal understanding of the game before joining. The coaches recognize this. “They concentrate on teaching the sport…they teach you really well,” O’Brien said.

Senior Dawson Knickerbocker is in his first year playing rugby and agrees that learning the sport is much easier than one would think. Though he had some difficulties in his first game, Dawson said, “The returning players made it really easy [to learn the game]…if you had any questions they answered all of them.”

When Americans think of rugby, some would describe it as football without pads. This is a common misconception, as there are many other facets of rugby that differ from football. Some of the major differences are the rules for passing. “In rugby you can only throw the ball backwards but you can kick it forwards as far as you want,” Hill said.

“It’s continuous,” O’Brien said, “in football you stop after every play, in rugby it’s more like soccer, when you get tackled you put the ball behind you and someone else picks it up and keeps going.” The only stoppages of play occur when the ball is thrown or dropped forward or when the ball goes out of bounds.

Hill added that scoring in rugby is different than in football. “In rugby a touchdown is five points, but the extra point is two points,” Hill said.

O’Brien also described the differences between tackling in football and rugby. “You have to tackle below the nipple line and you have to wrap up,” O’Brien said, “So it’s a lot safer and there’s a lot less injuries when tackling and a lot less concussions in general.”

Furthermore, there are no downs in rugby, which means rugby players are less concerned with getting big hits to prevent players from gaining more yardage. “As long as you get them to the ground it’s a good tackle, you can give up five yards,” O’Brien said, “That takes out the big hit, which causes a lot of concussions.”

In addition, the lack of padding causes rugby players to be more cautious and protective of their heads, whereas in football O’Brien believes players are given a false sense of security when wearing helmets. This helps reduce the number of concussions in rugby.

Despite these major differences, Hill, a varsity football player, believes rugby has helped him improve his football game. “It’s really helped out my tackling techniques,” Hill said.

A typical rugby practice is aimed at teaching the game and improving skills. “We practice our kicking first, then we run and do our warmups,” Knickerbocker said, “Then we go through passing lines and drills to help with passing, then we usually do any drills our coach thinks we need to work on.”

There are two different rugby seasons in Nebraska. In the fall, students play sevens and in the spring they play fifteens. “Fifteens is more physical, [there is] more contact because there [are] fifteen players on each team,” Hill said, “Sevens is more fast paced, [there is] more scoring because there [are] only seven players on each side of the ball, and it’s still the same field size [and] still the same rules.”

Participation in rugby varies between seasons. Fewer students participate in the fall and more students play in the spring. “For sevens we only have about five Central kids and we combine with Prep and Northwest to get a full team,” O’Brien said. O’Brien estimates that Central may have more than twenty-five students play fifteens this year, though this number may change.

Since rugby has not caught on significantly in Nebraska, players from various schools combine so that they have enough team members to compete. “Multiple schools [are] coming [together] for one team…Creighton Prep, Northwest, and Central all play for the team I play for, which is Omaha United,” Knickerbocker said. Papillion, Gretna, Sioux City, and West Omaha all have teams as well.

Central’s players on Omaha United must learn to work with people from other schools who they may not necessarily know, which has forced Central’s players to build skills in teamwork and collaboration. “I’ve learned that you’ve got to be more of a team player in rugby than you have to in any other sport,” Hill said.

Knickerbocker has also learned lessons in respect for his teammates and opponents. “It [rugby] is all about respect, you don’t want to hit late, you don’t want to make dirty plays or anything like that, it’s all about playing right and playing hard,” Knickerbocker said. He appreciates the community aspect of rugby. “Everyone is so respectful, everyone knows each other, even different teams know each other,” Knickerbocker added.

Rugby has given O’Brien a chance to be a leader. “I’ve learned leadership from rugby because I’ve been the rugby captain for the past two seasons,” O’Brien said.

Central’s rugby team is always looking for new members interested in learning the sport. To join, one should talk to O’Brien or Hill about practices, which usually take place at Memorial Park after school. People interested in learning more about the sport can also go to



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