Matt Rippin, Harlequins Rugby Youth Programs Coordinator
First, can you tell readers how you became the coordinator for the Harlequin’s youth programs and what that entails?
I played for the Harlequins until I was about 27. Every member of the Rugby Football Club (that’s the team itself) is expected to contribute to the Rugby Football Association. The RFA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit which owns our field and runs our Youth programs, among other things. I coached at one of our youth sites throughout my career, and after I retired, I was happy to step up my involvement with the RFA.
We run a touch-rugby league at four sites in the area: Hazelwood, Garfield, Braddock and Homewood-Larimer. Our target youths are high-risk boys from 8-14, and our program runs for ten weeks in the late Spring. But we are always looking for new opportunities to expand our reach.
For instance, this Fall we’ll be participating in an after-school program in the Hill District that seeks to expose the kids to Olympic sports (which rugby will become in 2016). Our first priority at all times is mentorship. We’re not recruiting for rugby; we’re trying to teach sportsmanship and teamwork and discipline. Rugby is a great vehicle for those lessons.
What have been some of the bigger successes you’ve had to date with these programs?
Just this year one of our volunteers, who is a professor at Cal U., reconnected with two alumni of the youth program who now attend Cal. They say that without our rugby program, they never would have stayed on the path they are on. That is always one of the most satisfying aspects of the program–when you see the young men wearing college memorabilia and you feel that you played a role in helping them get there.
But I should mention, we’ve also attended the funerals of some of the young men that we’ve coached. We have a lot of successes, but we definitely have our faith tested as well.
What’s been the biggest challenge in getting people to adopt the sport early, and how can they do so?
They don’t see the game on TV. They want to emulate what they see. At the youth level, it’s a challenge to get them to embrace the game and not just play tag football with a rugby ball.
There is a lot of high school rugby out there, though. In Western PA the programs are not run through high school athletic departments–so you don’t have to attend Fox Chapel to play for Fox Chapel’s team, for instance. If you’re interested, there should be a club that’s not too far from you.
Football is so dominant right now in our culture, and I think it does a disservice to a lot of kids. A lot of great athletes fall through the cracks in football because they don’t quite fit the game. They’re big, but someone else is bigger; they’re fast but someone else is faster.
Rugby rewards the well-rounded athlete: every player on the field has to run, hit, carry the ball and perhaps even kick. And you can tailor your game to your particular strengths. I think I lot of kids would prefer a game like that.
How has the Pittsburgh area adopted the sport of rugby so far and what big inroads can/will you make to continue to grow interest?
Rugby is growing all over, and it’s growing in Pittsburgh. Almost every university in the area has a team. And as the high school programs in the area have grown, they have begun to match up favorably with the teams in Philadelphia. Those are marked improvements compared to a mere ten years ago.
Traditionally, rugby has been thought of as a college and private school sport. That’s beginning to change now. Everybody in American rugby is hoping that the addition of Sevens Rugby to the Olympics will help to increase visibility. NBC is also starting to carry games and tournaments.
For our part, we’re looking to expand our youth operation within the city. We hope to be in five or six neighborhoods soon. Although our primary mission is mentorship, the program is also a great opportunity to share the game with communities who haven’t yet experienced it.
Tell readers about this year’s team? How has it changed from the 2011 squad and what are your expectations for this season?
The team’s looking real good these days. It’s the nature of amateur sports that you always have to rebuild after a few years. That’s where the club was a year ago at this time. But they had a strong 2011 and have opened up 3-0 in 2012. They’re really on the upswing now. I think they have a legitimate shot at the national Sweet 16 this year.
Where can they see the Harlequins play, and tell readers a bit about the experience as a fan?
Pittsburghers might be surprised to know that this is home to one of the finest rugby facilities in the country. We play at Founder’s Field in Indiana Township, just off Rt. 910. We were one of the first clubs, and are still one of the few, who have our own home field. Most clubs still have to scrounge for time on municipal parks.
The game experience is great. If you associate rugby with college hooliganism, you’d be surprised how professional and family-friendly it is: dogs and kids are welcome, and of course you can always get a spot close to the action. This is not to suggest, though, that there isn’t any beer. There is beer. And rugby songs. It’s really a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Who are some of the bigger rivals of this team?
The Harlequins play in Division I of the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union, so our league rivals are the teams in Philadelphia and DC, plus Norfolk, Raleigh and Charlotte. Our oldest rival is Pittsburgh’s D-II club, although the nature of the rivalry has changed since we’ve moved up and out of their division. We do still play each other, though, almost every Spring, and it’s always a grudge match.
Who are the bigger characters on this team and what makes them so? Any examples?
Hmm. You could ask every Harlequin in the organization that question and get a different set of answers. I can only answer for my era. In my time I’ve seen a friend jump out of the overhead storage compartment of a bus dressed like Spiderman; I’ve had another friend walk from a party in the North Hills to his home in Shadyside via I-279; I also have three very funny stories that involve knifeplay, but I’ll keep those to myself because I don’t want you to get wrong impression.
The thing you need to remember is that these are also some of the smartest, most interesting people I have ever met. And they’re outstanding friends. Rugby players are stereotyped as being buffoons; nothing could be further from the truth. They’re just quirky and uniquely unpretentious.
I’m sure you’ve seen the issues with concussions in other sports. How is rugby dealing with the issue of concussions and the physical nature of the sport in general?
The rugby community has been out in front of the concussion issue. International rugby had restrictions on players returning from concussions years before the NFL started to take the issue seriously. The Harlequins are interested in taking a leadership role locally, but our plans for that are still in the embryonic stages.
Rugby is undeniably a violent sport, but there’s also a lot of common sense written into the rules that mitigates the danger. You can’t launch yourself at a ballcarrier the way they do in football; you can’t tackle above the shoulders; and you have to make an attempt to wrap your arms in a tackle. Most importantly, I think, is that rugby players don’t wear the body armor that American football players do. I tell everyone who will listen that the way to make football safer is to remove the hard plastic shells, which turn players into human battering rams. When your face is exposed to the violence, you learn very quickly how to hit responsibly. And when your neck and shoulders have full range of motion, you can protect yourself.
That said, I have seen a few gruesome injuries in my day. The risks can never be fully eliminated.
Do you work at all with any of the other local sports teams, and if so, how?
Most of our work is with the college rugby teams, with whom we seek close relationships for obvious reasons. Founder’s Field is also host to a lot of the area’s soccer and lacrosse.
To this point, we haven’t had any enduring relationships with the three majors sports teams–although some Steelers have been nice enough to make appearances at our Youth Tournament. The Steelers’ new concussion initiative may be an opportunity for us.
What do you think would surprise readers most about the sport and about the Harlequins?
About the sport: when most people think of rugby, they tend to focus on the contact. But it’s also one of the most grueling tests of endurance and discipline of any sport in the world. The game evolved from soccer, and like soccer it’s a long, continous-flow game played on a huge field. Only with full contact.
About the Harlequins: I think as soon as you arrive at Founder’s you’ll appreciate that we’re a lot more than just a social club. We have to put in a lot of extra time to run a class operation–and that’s in addition to our Youth Programs.
Any last thoughts for readers?
If you’re interested in anything we do–the team or the volunteer work–you’ve got to go to http://www.pittsburghharlequins.org/. We also have a Facebook page. Or you could just swing by the field sometime.