Rugby gains popularity among all ages in Johnston County

SMITHFIELD, N.C. (WNCN) – It’s a sport not too many people know much about.

But rugby is catching fire.

“It’s the fastest growing sport in America,” bragged Pat Cunningham, coach of the Clayton Copperheads Rugby Club.

Five years ago, Cunningham helped start the Copperheads. That squad began with 13 members, it has since grown to more than 200. Five years from now, Cunningham hopes rugby will be as common as soccer or lacrosse.

“That’s our goal really is to get all of Johnston County to have their own rugby team just like soccer or football,” said Cunningham.

There are just a couple of high schools in the Tar Heel state with rugby teams.

Both are in Charlotte. Johnston County hopes to soon change that.

But first, people need to learn just what is rugby.

“I don’t know anything about rugby, anything,” admitted Smithfield Selma head football coach Wes Hill.

The athletes quickly learn heads up tackling due to the lack of padding.

A technique now being stressed on the football field.

“It’s an opportunity for us to get safer and better at aspects of football by incorporating rugby into what we do,” explained Hill.

The Seattle Seahawks of the NFL and college powerhouse Ohio State are teaching rugby-style tackling.

“Since you’re not wearing a helmet in rugby, you have to know that you don’t put your head in there at all,” said Aaron Carter a junior at Corinth Holders High School.

Amazingly rough and tumble, rugby has seen fewer concussions than soccer, a less physical sport that rugby is sometimes compared to.

“I think you can equate soccer to the rugby growth and the same thing that will grow rugby as it did soccer,” said Cunningham.

One thing the two sports have in common is running.

Lots of running.

“It’s constant everything,” said Cardinal Gibbons High School freshman Grant Kettner. “There’s no stops, full go 80 minutes.”

Five-year-old kids are taking up the sport.

And even 50-year-old men continue to play rugby. And girls are getting into the fray as well.

“Being out there with other girls and the enthusiasm of just tackling other girls, most girls don’t do stuff like that,” said Allie Royer.

“It’s like football for girls,” added Kat Rodriguez.

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