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News / Sports / Prep Sports

Tim Martinez: High school rugby leaves it all on the field

High school sports

By Tim Martinez, Columbian Assistant Sports Editor
Published: April 18, 2024, 6:05am
4 Photos
Cruz Williams of the Camas Rugby Club is tackled during a match against Budd Bay of Olympia at Doc Harris Stadium in Camas on Saturday, April 13, 2024.
Cruz Williams of the Camas Rugby Club is tackled during a match against Budd Bay of Olympia at Doc Harris Stadium in Camas on Saturday, April 13, 2024. (Tim Martinez/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

To a newcomer, a rugby match might look a lot like organized chaos.

“Absolutely,” Camas High School senior Cruz Williams said. “That’s what it is essentially.”

Williams has been part of the Camas Rugby Club since its inception in 2022 and has seen the program grow to more than 50 high-school age players, most from Camas High with a few from Union, Mountain View and Evergreen.

“We’re kind of a community-based team, and we’re not under the umbrella of the high school,” head coach Rich McLeod said. “But in saying that, the school is very supportive of what we do.”

McLeod grew up in Canada and earned a scholarship to play rugby for the University of British Columbia in that other Vancouver (you know, the younger one). He went on to play professionally in England and New Zealand.

A teacher by trade who has taught all around the world, McLeod stepped away from the sport for about a decade before moving to Camas in 2022. That’s when he helped form the Camas Rugby Club.

15 Photos
Cruz Williams of the Camas Rugby Club is tackled during a match against Budd Bay of Olympia at Doc Harris Stadium in Camas on Saturday, April 13, 2024.
Camas Rugby Club Photo Gallery

Camas High senior Jagger Morris was there too in 2022.

“I started over the river in Oregon when I was in the third or fourth grade and loved the game ever since,” Morris said. “Me and my brother actually, we’re connected with Coach Rich, and we were one of the leading people that started this team. So I’m really happy as to where it’s come in the past two years now.”

In that first year in 2022, the club had 30 players on two teams, which was a bit of a trick considering that a rugby side consists of 15 players. That year, the club played in a league with Oregon high school clubs and reached the Oregon league championship match.

The next year, in 2023, the Camas club won the Oregon league championship.

This spring, the club made the decision to play in Rugby Washington. That involved a bit more travel to play clubs in the Seattle area, but it also meant facing clubs of similar caliber to Camas in growth and talent.

McLeod said he has enjoyed introducing the sport to kids, especially those who play football.

Rugby is very similar to American football, except there are no pads or helmets (for the most part), no blocking or forward passes. It’s basically 15 players working together to move the ball forward by constantly lateralling the ball to one another.

“To me, it’s an easy sell to an athletic kid, especially a football player,” McLeod said. “I’ll say ‘How many times have you held the ball this year?’ And a lineman’s response is ‘never,’ unless they’re the long snapper or center. So kids like Joe Merlino get a chance to have the ball in their hands in rugby. That’s a real eye-opener, and it’s a bit more fun.”

Merlino was a standout lineman for the Union High football team last year who had an opportunity to play college football at Central Washington.

But he was persuaded to try rugby last spring with the Camas Rugby Club. This year, Merlino is playing rugby at Western Washington.

“He’s a success story of a kid that came through and had one season with us, fell in love with it and then got some offers to play rugby in college,” McLeod said.

But even if college offers don’t come, the players say rugby is just a lot of fun to play, especially the opportunity to run around the field hitting people.

“It’s a constant battle against each other, really pushing each other off that onside and offside line,” Williams said. “Honestly, it’s probably one of the most similar sports, in my opinion, to war, essentially.”

And yet, the sport is also rooted in camaraderie and sportsmanship. After every match, it’s a tradition for both teams to come together for a post-match meal.

“The best part about rugby … is that community,” Williams said. “That you do leave everything on the field, and it’s all respectful. And after (the match), you essentially break bread together, and share food and share stories and talk about plays in the game.”

The Camas Rugby Club has a pivotal match coming up Saturday against Liberty of Renton at Doc Harris Stadium. The players hope you come out and enjoy the craziness.

Rugby is like the game-winning kickoff return by California against Stanford in the 1980s — you know, the game when the band came on the field and the Cal player ran over the Stanford trombone player for a touchdown.

It’s kind of like that, except for 70 minutes … and no band.

“It’s a really fast-paced game,” Morris said. “Everything is so in your face, like everything all at once. It all happens so fluidly. It’s one of those things that you kind of have to take your time to understand the game. But even if you don’t, it’s just a fun game to watch. It’s always moving. Something’s always happening on the field.”