Rugby. What’s the first thing you think of when you hear that word? Maybe you think its a game a bunch of guys play in Australia or England. Maybe you think of a sport that is a cross between American football and soccer without helmets. In essence, you would be right, but guess what? Rugby is all of that and more – and it’s right here in Seattle.
Yes, Seattle has a professional rugby team – and if I can just fan-girl for a moment – ladies, you are going to want to attend a game. Or two. Or become a season ticket holder. Not gonna lie.
I was approached by the Seawolves to write about their story and I had the opportunity to spend an entire morning with them on the field – and it might have been the best.day.ever. Let’s dig into this more.
What in the world is rugby really?
The game of rugby was founded in 1823 by William Webb Ellis at the
School of Rugby in England. During a game of soccer, Ellis proceeded to
pick up the ball and run with it. And thus rugby was born. The sport made
its way to the shores of America, where over the course of time rule and
regulation changes led to what we know as American Football today. — Seattle Seawolves, Rugby 101
I most often hear from others that rugby sounds complicated. But think about this. The NFL is probably the most complicated sport in history. I am just going to throw this out there, if you want to read the NFL 2018 rule book, you can here – and it’s an 89-page PDF. 89 pages. And what else does the NFL have? Commercial time outs. Game stoppage for a multitude of reasons. Concussions. Yet – the sport is loved by millions. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you too will fall in love with rugby like I have.
The Seattle Seawolves best describe the basics of rugby like this:
A flow sport just like soccer, the game only stops when a penalty is committed or
the ball/player in possession of the ball goes out of bounds. You can only pass the
ball sideways or backwards, but can kick the ball forward at any point in open play.
The object of the game is to carry the ball over the opponent’s tryline and ground
the ball to score. Once this happens, the original touchdown, five points are awarded
to the team who scored a TRY. Wherever the ball was dotted down determines the
line in which any player on the field can attempt to kick a CONVERSION through the
uprights for two more points.
The only other times where points can be earned are with a PENALTY KICK or a
DROP GOAL. If a penalty kick or drop goal is converted, their team will rack up an
additional three points.
Much like American football and soccer, there are specific positions, they just have fun names that you may not be used to (and I’m sorry NFL fans but tight end makes me giggle every time).
Rugby has about ten positions and players in those positions wear specific numbers on their jerseys, much like NFL players do. These positions are on the Front End: Props, Hooker, Locks, Flankers, and Number 8. On the back end, there are Scrumhalf, Flyhalf, Wings, Centers and Fullbacks. The field is called the pitch and is 100 meters long by 70 meters wide (109 yards by 76 yards) with 15 players on the field and 23 on the roster for game day. The full Rugby 101 can be found here.
Now that you hopefully have the basics, let’s meet some of your Seattle Seawolves. As I stated earlier, I had the chance to sit down with some of the players to watch them practice and chat. That following Sunday, I went to my first Seawolves game and I was hooked.
Peter Tiberio – 11
Peter (known as “Tibs” on and around the pitch) grew up in the Chicago area and went to college at the University of Arizona where he started playing rugby. Rugby is why he ended up in Seattle. He prefers rugby over sports like football because he feels you can get pigeon-holed into playing only one position and have one job. Rugby is more diverse. Even if you just moved into town and find your local rugby team to start playing, you immediately develop a family and have a group of people who will actively try and help you find a job and a place to live. As for playing in Seattle, he never thought he would play in front of sold out crowds other than for the national team. He never thought he would see crowds like the Seattle crowds in his career. The support they have received has been unbelievable. For those who may not quite understand rugby, Peter says it’s still fun to watch a bunch of guys come out on a field and smash each other.
Aladdin was born and raised in Seattle and started playing rugby here for the Eastside Lions. He fell in love with rugby right away and was looking for a sport outside of football that took him through college and now into professional sports. He prefers rugby over other sports because the culture that rugby brings is not found anywhere else. He loves the die hard rugby fans and feels lucky that they have been able to sell out every home game. For Aladdin, it feels really good to hear the fans shouting, “Seawolves! Seawolves! Seawolves!” Overall, the rugby environment is inclusive, not exclusive. Everyone can play rugby, at any age, weight or height. As for playing in his hometown of Seattle, Aladdin says there is no better feeling. He brought 30 cousins out to home games last year and was fortunate enough to play in front of his mom, dad and sisters. Having them and his girlfriend, his cousins and the whole family out here means a lot to him. Aladdin says anyone who comes out to a game will have a great time.
Cam is from Victoria, BC and started playing rugby when he was 6 years old. BC has really good youth programs and his dad helped him get into it. Cam played club and then through university, followed by the province, then for Canada and now for the Seawolves. Playing in Seattle has been an unreal experience, when people recognize you on the street and talk to you about the game, it’s amazing. He loves that the fans have been loyal whether they are winning or losing (luckily the Seawolves tend to win). He says Seattle is good for morale. Cam talked about their training and practices – the Seawolves practice 2-3 times a week and in the gym at the Washington Athletic Club about the same amount of time. With games, practice and gym – it really is a full time job. They also recently started doing cryotherapy to help stop muscle inflammation.
John started playing rugby his freshman year of high school in California when he needed something to do after football season was over. One of his buddies invited him out to play and he’s been hooked ever since. John played rugby at Central Washington University, alongside fellow Seawolves teammate Vili Toluta’u and last year, as university seniors, the pair commuted from CWU to Seattle for practices and games!
Eric, better known as “The Beast” to rugby fans, has been playing rugby for 14 years, starting his senior year of high school in Virginia (side note: I moved out to this Washington from the DC area and lived in Virginia so Eric and I had a moment during our interview, reminiscing of the good old 703 area code days). He was also in the Air Force for 10 years (another moment for me as my dad was in the Air Force) and at every station he moved to, he played for a different team. He got out of the military to play for the Seattle Seawolves. For Eric, rugby is more appealing than sports like football, because it’s a flow-state sport and keeps going, similar to soccer. But the difference between rugby and soccer is the contact. Rugby is like gladiator in an arena. However, rugby is also very much a family, even with the opposing teams. In football, he remembers riding the bus to games and hating the other team. With rugby, it’s not like that. Opponents on the field, friends off the field. When asked what its like playing in Seattle, Eric mentioned that Seattle has a really big fan base, with a lot of news coverage and people watching the game. He has had people spot him in the middle of the road to tell him he had a good game, and it’s unreal to him. He reiterated how he has been playing for 14 years, and for the first 12, he was just a big guy and now he’s the guy who plays for the Seawolves. It feels like to him, dreams do come true, and he didn’t become a pro until he was 31 years old. For him, while rugby isn’t a new sport to the world, it is a new sport to America and that makes it exciting. Fans will really enjoy the game when they come out. Off the field, Eric really likes the keto and paleo diet and drinks bulletproof coffee. At the gym, the players have their strength and conditioning coaches and right now they are working on speed. On his own, he does yoga once a week, meditates twice a day, and does the Urban Float sensory deprivation tank. Eric likes the eastern philosophy approach to medicine and to be zen. If you have any kids who want to start playing rugby, the Seawolves have a youth rugby clinic before each home game.
Tim grew up in Australia, in a small town about 5 hours north of Sydney. He played a lot of rugby in Sydney growing up and then moved to professional rugby in Melbourne for three years. One day, he visited Canada on holiday with his partner and heard about professional rugby starting in the U.S., so he sent his resume around and Seattle brought him down and he hasn’t looked back since! For him and others not originally from America, rugby is in their DNA. Every kid in Australia wants to be a rugby or cricket player as its ingrained in their culture. He wants to try and build that same rugby culture here in America, with boys and girls growing up and wanting to be rugby players, and now with it in the Olympics – maybe they will dream to be Olympians as well. Rugby can do that for these kids and that’s something Tim wants to build in the States. When asked what it’s been like for him playing professional rugby in Seattle, he said while he didn’t know what to expect at first, especially coming from Australia where professional rugby is so much a part of the culture. Moving over here – he wasn’t sure what to expect, but from the inaugural game, it was clear and evident that the Pacific Northwest was right behind them. They have had such a massive inclusion from Seattle rugby fans and the community has built such a great atmosphere in the stadium. He really appreciates and feels the following. Tim says anyone who is a big fan of American football, hockey or any other contact sports – rugby is definitely a sport they can get behind and enjoy watching. It’s 80 minutes of fast-paced, full contact and the ball can transition from offense to defense in a heartbeat. Its non-stop action. You can come down to a game with your family or with some friends and have a beer. Rugby is a game for everyone. Before a game, Tim isn’t superstitious, but on game day he likes his poached eggs on toast and listening to music. If you are an aspiring rugby player, Tim encourages you to stay at it. Tim didn’t sign his first professional contract until he was 23 and he left home at 18 – so that is 5 years of hard work he put in before he was able to go professional. He emphasized the family culture of rugby, going to war for 80 minutes on the field and then grabbing a beer afterwards.
I also had the chance to chat with Shane Skinner, the President and Owner of the Seawolves.
How did this all start for you?
A new league was formed a few years ago. There is a really rich history of rugby in the Pacific Northwest with one of the better club teams in the U.S. So there was already a great foundation here that had been around since maybe the 1960’s. Through that network, a league was forming in the U.S. What better place to have a team than a place with great rugby? I was approached about co-founding a team and two years later, we sold out every match and won a championship! We are working hard to defend the Major League Rugby championship shield – its so surreal! When you first start, you ask yourself if this is really going to happen because it’s very difficult to launch a professional sports team in America. For Major League Rugby’s second season, the league went from 7 to 9 teams and we will be up to 12 teams next year and we have opportunities to continue to grow into 2021.
Do you play all the teams right now?
Yes, we play all the teams twice. There will be an East and West conference next year with six teams in each. We will play all the teams in our conference twice and then teams from the other conference once.
Did you play rugby?
I did! I played soccer initially when I went to college. After my freshman year, I saw the rugby guys were having more fun so they sucked me over and I made friends with a bunch of the rugby guys. I got really lucky for work, I ended up in Bath, England, which is like a mecca for rugby so I got to play for a really good amateur club as well and have been playing ever since. I’ve playing in Wilmington, Delaware, LA, Wisconsin and now I play here for the old boys.
What’s it been like to have all the fans coming to the games?
It’s so awesome. It goes back to being surreal. I’m not joking, when I first started this, I thought it was going to be me, my wife and kids in the stands. You just don’t know. Then fast forward and we have sold out every single match, last year and this year. We have been sold out for the season, and the bulk of them are season ticket holders at 87% – and that’s up from last year! We have a great product and great customer service. Ultimately this is a startup with a massive learning curve. From the very beginning, the Seawolves based it on the experience. We hit the general sport fan, not just the rugby fans. We have the bouncy castle, face painting, pride night, military night, recognizing law enforcement – we want to create a great experience for everyone. One weekend I can bring the kids to the bouncy castle and watch rugby and then the next weekend, bring my guys and have a beer on the other side and have two different experiences at the same stadium. It’s a really unique sporting experience.
Why do you think rugby is not as popular yet in America?
It is the fastest growing team sport in America so it’s definitely headed in the right direction. Traditionally, you just have a longer history with the other sports, which were invented here. So those are traditional American sports. Now that the sport is professionalized, kids can see it on tv or come to a match and meet their favorite players. We have already seen a grassroots groundswell up. We have at least 100 kids here before the matches for youth clinics. When I was a kid, I was in my backyard pretending I was Joe Theismann or Cal Ripken, but now the kids are going to pretend they are one of these guys.
I highly suggest everyone who reads this that hasn’t been to a Seattle Seawolves game buy a ticket now and go to their next home game! They play at Starfire in Tukwila! I went to one game and was hooked and I am already planning more for the rest of this season and the next!