GRETNA — Russell Adelman-Cannon is quite frank when describing his attraction to rugby.
“I like tackling people to the ground,” the 10-year-old said with a grin.
Russell was one of dozens of kids, both veterans and newcomers, who took part in the New Orleans Rugby Foundation’s and Louisiana Rugby’s Day of Rugby Dec. 8 at Gretna Park. Designed to capitalize on the burgeoning popularity of the rough-and-tumble sport locally and nationally, the clinic included coaching instruction, high school matches and youth practices.
It also featured perfect weather and the presence of national rugby administrators and contingents from Baton Rouge and elsewhere in Louisiana. About 35 kids from ages 5 to 13 attended the event on the park’s rugby pitch, said Nick Conte, the New Orleans area’s first full-time youth rugby coach. That’s three times the number of previous Days of Rugby.
“It’s been absolutely fantastic,” said Conte, whose position is supported by Coach Across America, a national initiative aimed at cultivating interesting in the sport across the country. “We have a lot of kids and parents who have never even played or seen rugby before.”
USA Rugby National High School and Youth Director Kurt Weaver attended the festivities last weekend and came away duly impressed with New Orleans’ growing enthusiasm for the sport.
“This is huge,” Weaver said. “Any rugby is great rugby. There’s a huge amount of kids, parents and volunteers here. This is the seed (of local popularity), and it will take off quickly.”
The Crescent City is home to numerous rugby squads of all ages and skill levels, from the national champion men’s team, the New Orleans Rugby Football Club, to the women’s club squad, the New Orleans Halfmoons, to the local youth aggregation, Loup Garoux, which Conte coaches.
Also present in the area are several college, high school and elementary school teams, some of their representatives took part in the Dec. 8 event in Gretna.
Local and national leaders of the sport say New Orleans features one of the country’s most active rugby scenes, thanks to a large network of volunteer parents, coaches and organizers. That includes Britain native, lifelong player and rugby parent Neil Timms.
“I grew up with rugby,” Timms said. “It’s just a great game, and people are realizing how fun it is.”
Rugby enjoys widespread popularity across the world, but it hasn’t reached big-time status in the United States. For Americans, rugby might look like a cross of soccer and football, but without any of the padding used in the later sport.
That makes rugby a very kinetic, physically taxing sport that might seem too rough for young children. But Timms disagrees.
“Being able to be outside, run around, make new friends and play a rough and tough sport?” he asked. “What kid doesn’t like that?”
Laura Adelman-Cannon, Russell’s mother and a local volunteer leader, said that as a parent, she has no concerns about her children playing rugby. That includes her 6-year-old daughter Belle, who attended last Saturday’s event sporting pigtails, cleats and her Loup Garoux jersey.
“It’s fun,” Belle said of the sport she’s played for two years. “I like everything.”
Other kids at Gretna Park voiced varying reasons for their affinity for the game.
“You get to learn a lot, learn a lot of new rules,” said Loup Garoux member Connor D’Arcy.
Other young participants cited rugby’s constant action, which greatly boosts their physical fitness.
“It’s active,” said Stephen Campo. “It helps you get muscles and health.”
Added Sam Lucker: “It has a lot more running than football. You play two sides (offense and defense), unlike football.”
Adult leaders, who are also celebrating rugby’s reinstatement as an Olympic sport, similarly stress the positive impact rugby has on the well being of its youth players, both physical and mental.
Weaver noted in rugby, especially at the youth levels, all participants see playing time on the pitch, which enhances kids’ physical health and self-esteem. Life lessons such as teamwork and commitment are also realized.
“Every kid gets to run, pass, kick and score,” he said. “It’s a very inclusive sport and an active sport.”
Laura Adelman-Cannon attributed last weekend’s large turnout partially to such characteristics of the sport.
“This is amazing,” she said. “To me, rugby is about community. Almost everyone plays, and it’s not about just one star. Everyone touches the ball.”
She added because the younger levels of rugby feature boys and girls on the same team, and because of the international flavor of the sport, children see the value of gender and ethnic diversity.
“They learn how to have respect for each other,” she said.
The growth of the local rugby scene has simply astounded Adelman-Cannon.
“If you had have told me when I started volunteering that we’d have this many kids here today, I wouldn’t have imagined it,” she said.
Conte, the local youth coach, predicted that many of the children who turned out for the Dec. 8 clinic will not only start competing in rugby on a regular basis, but they’ll also remain loyal to the game for years to come.
“It’s a game you start playing as a young player and play for the rest of your life,” he said.
Conte, who began serving as the New Orleans youth coach in September, noted that local rugby outreach efforts include sending volunteers into dozens of area schools to acquaint youngsters — more than 1,200 so far — with the game. That, combined with events such as last Saturday’s Day of Rugby, will hopefully help the New Orleans area not only continue to flourish, but to keep growing.
“Today is an introduction,” Conte said. “Our goal is to make sure it stays on the radar. Our real goal is to tell people that we’re here.”