Wright On: Rugby rewards outweigh risks

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HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Lawrence Fong moved to Hilo in 1990 and started Hilo Reign Rugby Club a few years later.
HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Sahryse Fong, 11, (center) and Aery Maavesefo, 10, practice with coach John Higgins on Thursday at Malama Park in Panaewa/
HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Keiki practice passing Thursday during rugby practice at Malama Park in Panaewa.

Those of us who tend to follow sports more closely than, you know, normal people, sometimes get caught in the trap of false pride in what we think we know.

We have a better understanding of how to talk about sports, compared to the folks who only tune in for a championship game or the Final Four. But often, we don’t know as much as we think we know about sports.

The occasional fan will come to us on rare occasions, seeking advice on whether Alabama is really that good in football, or if the Astros could really win the World Series. We then feel free to let the uninitiated know how much we know.

But the truth is, our own presumptions can blindfold our own limited understanding of sports. We tend to grow up channeled toward one or two sports that gives us some insight, but in the big picture, we know little about sports we didn’t grow up with.

How long since you had a bobsled argument with a friend? What are your thoughts about biathlon being the world’s most difficult sporting challenge? Why isn’t the United States stronger internationally in downhill skiing?

Here’s where the confessional comes in: It’s been less than a week since I realized how much I wish I played rugby growing up.

We tend to associate the game with brutality. We’ve seen the pictures after major international matches with players splattered in mud, cracking a smile revealing a missing tooth, wiping away blood dripping from a crooked nose.

“Oh my God, so many parents are afraid of it, they’re just scared because of things they heard or saw,” said Vae Sefo, mother of a girl (Aery) and boy (Rocky), who each play rugby. “They don’t really know what this is all about.”

Her kids are involved for the second year with the Hilo Reign, one of the Big Island youth rugby teams hopeful of spreading the word about inclusive nature of the sport while dispelling notions of its risks.

Let’s be straight up here and establish that any kid can get hurt in any sport. Swimmers can lose track of their strokes and bang their heads into the wall, tennis can damage elbows, anything we do has some level of risk, but the parents who have keiki playing rugby are adamant that the risk of injury in rugby is far less than commonly believed.

“It’s a game where everyone is moving, there’s a lot of running,” said Lawrence Fong, the Fijian coach who moved to Hilo in 1990 and started the Hilo Reign Rugby Club a few years later. His son and daughter play for the Reign. “Everyone is involved, you’re passing, catching, you’re making a try (an attempt to score), there’s no standing around and watching.”

And there’s virtually no padding of any kind which can give the misinformed the impression that the game is more physically dangerous than football, where people wear pads, helmets, all sorts of armor.

That’s where we get it wrong.

“The times over the years I’ve see injuries,” Fong said, “were in the past when we would get former football players coming out to play. They don’t know how to tackle properly and they would always be the ones who seemed to get injured.”

Unlike football, there’s no blocking in rugby, and if you think about that for five seconds, you can probably recall numerous times in almost every game you’ve seen where some guy gets blindsided in the open field, knees are torn apart in offensive and defensive line play with 300-pound bodies slamming into each other, seeking physical leverage to roll the opponent into the ground.

That never happens in rugby. There is also no such thing as forward pass, so you eliminate all those downfield hits when the offensive player is looking for the ball and the opponents is seeking to knock him out of the game.

This is a flow game, a lot more like soccer or basketball, with a touch of football similarities. The ball is passed underhanded — safer that way — as teams move downfield, passing it off as a defender closes in.

Tackling is what tackling should be like in football. There is no contact of any kind allowed above the shoulders. A good tackle is shoulders around the waist, then two hands wrapping up. Without two hands wrapping up, it becomes a penalty. If this rule were instituted in football, we could save a lot of brain injuries.

But there’s more. Girls and women play this game in increasing numbers, possibly because they have learned what Ka’iulani Fa’anunu, a former Hilo Reign player now a freshman engineering student at Utah Valley University, hoping to play on the school’s women’s club team, learned from the game.

Fa’anunu was moved enough by her experience on the Reign, that she wrote a paper about it for a class. In part, she wrote:

“It’s more than just a sport, I’ve played many organized sports, softball, volleyball, track, wrestling and basketball, but there’s something unique about rugby that sets it apart from all the rest. … there’s a culture that very few people get to experience.

“During the game,” she wrote, “you get all these mixed feelings of intensity: enjoyment, chaos and sometimes anger, but once you step off the field, that’s when you witness the meaning of a ‘gentleman’s game,’ The camaraderie you experience is like no other sport. In rugby you get to know your opponents on a whole other level.”

That’s the clincher.

The rugby ethic is about team and working together because without the involvement of everyone on the field, there is no team and there will be no success. But there’s a code of conduct in this sport that touches on issues like congratulating opponents on good plays, tackling to secure the tackle with no intent to injure, and so on.

You see these boys and girls, playing on mixed gender squads, working together, running, laughing and smiling.

Those of us who have followed American football and have attended more practices of high school, college and professional teams than we can recall will uniformly be shocked at the atmosphere at these sessions.

It’s fun, nobody’s getting hurt, players aren’t being screamed at, they are being encouraged and emboldened.

You see it for the first time and if you are of a certain age, you are filled with regret that you didn’t realize how much your own kids would have loved this sport.

For others of us, it’s not too late to try. The Hilo Reign, Puna Chiefs and Kona Bulls Facebook pages will provide all the details you need.

Trust me, it’s worth a look.

Tips or whistleblower alerts? Email Bart at barttribuneherald@gmail.com[