Cleveland's 35-year-old rugby club opens the spring season on Saturday. We talked with Cleveland Rovers president Terry Kilbane — a 2002 St. Edward's graduate who played at Bowling Green — about the growth of rugby in the city.
How would you pitch Scene readers on rugby in Cleveland?
tk: Rugby in Cleveland is actually a pretty cool story. The high school rugby league started in the late '90s. Right now, Cleveland is the fastest growing rugby community in the country. USA Rugby is actually modeling their youth and high school programs off of the success in Cleveland. Just recently we produced five local athletes that made national all-star teams in the Las Vegas sevens event, so we're really starting to develop some serious players. We had a guy — Rocco Mauer who played St. Ed's then Bowling Green — on the U.S. national team, playing on NBC, right from Cleveland, Ohio. There's really some excellent things going on in Cleveland. We're taking away the pre-existing power structures from rugby in the Midwest — Chicago, Cincinnati — we're coming for all that, and it's a really positive, cool thing that's started by amateur athletes for the love of the game and love of Cleveland.
So how's the skill level of this team compared to a college team? How good are we talking about?
tk: It's about the highest level you could play in the States without being shipped off to play professionally overseas or being on the U.S. national team. Rugby's amateur in America — there's no professional leagues — so basically if you represent your city's team, and there's at least one or two teams in every major city, except for Chicago that has like seven, it's the highest level in the country.
How old are the guys on the team? How many you got?
tk: Right now I'd say we've got about 35 to 40 people on our roster. We've had guys who are like 18 or 19 but the age range usually goes from 19 to 32, but we've had guys play until their late 30s.
On your website it says players must have a Hawaiian shirt.
tk: There's a huge social aspect of the game. We play really hard against other teams and afterwards we have what's called a "social": we go meet with the other team, we share a meal, and if you want to have some beers, there's beers there. There's all sorts of small traditions, but the thing that's become unanimous with the Rovers is we wear Hawaiian shirts after matches, so that's our thing. We wear Hawaiian shirts.
How did that tradition start?
tk: Man, that's a good question, I have no idea.
So long before you came in?
tk: Oh yeah, that pre-dates my time. The club's been around since 1978, some of the stuff just gets passed down.
What kind of turnover is there for your players? How long do they usually stick around?
tk: These are all guys who have grown up in Cleveland, we live here. I've been playing on the club since 2007 and there's still a lot of guys from when I came in that are still playing. Sometimes people move, of course, but the guys who play usually stick around for like an average of 4 to 5 years, I guess. We'll have international players who will come and play with us for a season — some guys from New Zealand and Scotland.
Are you looking for new players?
tk: Always, yeah. We always tell people no experience is necessary, we have a full staff of coaches, so you don't even need to know the rules, we'll teach you how to play. In 2008, we had a guy who had never played rugby before — good athlete — and he starts a lot for us to this day. We're also just looking for more people to be aware of what's going on with the Cleveland rugby scene. It's a great sport.
What kind of injuries do you see?
tk: There's actually a lot less injuries in rugby than in football and I think even soccer, believe it or not. It's not as dangerous as it's made out to be. I've seen some bad lacerations, you see cuts, but there's really nothing too crazy.
So what is it that makes unpadded rugby safer than padded football?
tk: In football, a helmet and shoulder pads are protection. But in reality, those helmets are like 14 pounds: that's a weapon. In football, there's a guy catching a slant across the middle and he's completely exposed in midair to some guy with padding and a helmet; he's in a real bad spot. In rugby, both guys are in the same boat: You're both equally vulnerable, and it's just a line against a line, you're looking for holes in a line so there's not many opportunities to get blindsided.
Going back to the "social" part of it, where do you all typically go after home games?
tk: Our sponsor bar is PJ McIntyre's, they've been a sponsor for many years. After matches we'll go back to PJ's, we'll have a meal and hang out with the guys for a couple hours. Sometimes, like with the guys from the Chicago Riot coming Saturday who we're friends with, they'll be sticking around all night and showing them around Cleveland for the night.
There's a lot of Irish people in Cleveland and Chicago; are the good rugby cities ones with a high Irish population?
tk: It could be, I don't know. It can't hurt. But rugby's played all over Europe and really everywhere except North America where it's not as popular yet. Actually, to answer your questions, it's probably best in cities where it's more international because they just have people sharing different ideas, and good players from other countries.
Before we end here, what else would you like to say about it?
tk: These are guys that are competing for the city of Cleveland, not for money or any kind of personal gain. It's the honor of representing the city they love through the sport they love, sacrificing time from their families, jobs, to go out there and compete for Cleveland.