By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Ric Burd has a good job, a nice home in Mukilteo and a family that includes a wife, a 3-year-old son and another child on the way. He is living, in many ways, the American dream.
But for a few hours every week, he gets to live his dream.
Two years ago, Burd discovered rugby. And for a onetime high school sports star who was, by his own admission, getting “fat and out of shape,” the chance to take up rugby “was like getting a second lease on life.”
“Where else do you get an opportunity as an adult to smash into people?” the 37-year-old Burd explained with a grin. “I’m getting close to 40 and I still get to smash people. I love that.
And he is not alone. Rugby might not be the fastest growing sport in the United States, but it is growing nonetheless. There are several clubs in the Puget Sound area, including the Seattle Rugby Football Club, where Burd’s team, the Old Puget Sound Beach (OPSB) Beach Dogs, competes at a top national level.
A 1993 graduate of Mount Rainier High School, Burd played football well enough to get noticed by college recruiters. Even today, he said, “I love football. But I think in a lot of ways I love rugby more.”
Since taking up the sport “I’ve gotten in great shape. I’ve made great friends. And it’s changed our family. My son loves rugby now. He’s 3 years old and he knows how to line up and how to scrum. He takes a rugby ball to the park, not a football.”
Justin Fitzpatrick is a native of Northern Ireland and a former European professional who came to the United States earlier this year to coach the Beach Dogs. Though countries like Ireland, England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are the perennial world powers, Fitzpatrick believes American rugby “is making good leaps forward in a very short period of time. And if and when it catches on, I think it could be very, very short route to the top table of international rugby.”
Players and fans alike should appreciate the game because “in terms of the things that are exciting about American sports, rugby delivers them,” Fitzpatrick said. “The contact, the high-intensity collision element that you get in hockey and in gridiron (football), it’s there in rugby.
“And it’s not start and stop. The whistle blows in the first minute and there’s very little dead time. We’re going helter-skelter into each other.”
Tom Harward, 25, of Everett and his 22-year-old brother Jeff Harward of Lake Forest Park both started playing with the Seattle Rugby Football Club last fall. Like Burd, they are former football players who are now avid rugby players.
“I love it,” Tom Harward said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything because it’s so much fun. I love football, but the non-stop aspect of rugby is what makes it more fun to me.”
“Rugby was something new that I hadn’t played, but I stepped out on the pitch and I loved it,” Jeff Harward said. There was, he added, “a little bit of a learning curve. Obviously if you’re athletic you can get out there and run around. But being able to pass the ball, kick the ball, know the plays, know the way the field’s set up, everything like that, it takes a little bit of time. You definitely have to work at it.”
Because rugby is kind of like tackle football without the pads, injuries are a predictable part of the sport. In two years Burd has suffered a cracked rib and needed several stitches for a gash over his right eye that kept reopening. But the most painful wound was the time he ripped his thumb out of its socket.
“In rugby, you’re always going to get beat up,” Burd said. “But it’s so cool to have blood flowing down your face. You go to the sideline and they just tape you up, and then you’re right back out there playing.
“After a really good game, you feel like you’ve been in a car accident,” he said. “But if I’m not super-sore, then I’m disappointed in myself.”
“If you feel (battered), you know you played a good game,” Jeff Harward agreed. “And if you don’t feel like that, you haven’t been physical enough.”
Most rugby clubs welcome new players, including novices. But the key to growing the game in the United States, Fitzpatrick said, is getting youngsters started in the sport. That is already happening in the Seattle area, “and that really bodes well for the future,” he said.
“There are a lot of high school programs and that’s where the future is. It’s great that (adults) can wander past the park, see people playing rugby and say, ‘I want to give it a try.’ But the future for the game is getting the kids involved.”
Newcomers will experience a sport that is akin to football, but uniquely special in its own way.
“You’re not covered in pads and wearing a helmet,” Burd pointed out. “You’re in short shorts and a tight shirt.” And on game day, he went on, “there’s weather, there’s wind, there’s rain, there’s mud, and it’s for 80 minutes.
“You end up feeling that you did something that’s so amazing, and something that’s worth every single bruise.”