Starting to play rugby
April 3, 2012 10:32 AM   Subscribe

I want to start playing rugby (I think!) but I'm having issues...

Ok, so I've been following rugby for about six years or so, and I'm reasonably well-versed in the rules (not the intricate ones admittedly, but at least the ones which crop up in the course of normal play). I've dabbled in playing/practice, but I usually end up not committing to the practices in the long-term. This had a bit to do with the fact that there was a lot that I was 'expected' to be able to do without explicit instruction, like tackling, taking a tackle, passing techniques, communication etc etc. I'm very much a 'teach me, let me practice in a supportive environment, then I'll apply what I know in a real situation' kind of person, which seems to have been missing in the two clubs I've nominally been part of.

Anyway, I've been inspired by the recent Six Nations campaign and I'm tempted to start up again, but there are (as usual) a few niggles.

1) The next on-season coincides with my move to the States. Which has no national health service. Which means if I get injured it's on my insurance. This in and of itself isn't necessarily an issue, but am I mental for wanting to learn the game in the States where I don't have recourse to the same medical system I'm used to in the UK?

2) My age... In September I'll turn 30 years old which makes me feel as though I'm... past it. I'm reasonably fit and healthy, but am I too old to pursue this?

3) Which takes me to the next point: fitness benchmarks for rugby players? I'm 5'10, about 14 and a half stone, not massively stacked, but quick on my feet. I know I'd have to work on fitness, but where do I want to get to to ensure I at least enjoy the game/practices?

4) Communication. I genuinely have no idea how this works. When I watch a game all I see is lots of running around, all I hear is lots of shouting, and my general impression is of organised chaos with conflicting information being barked at the person with the ball. How the hell do you filter out all that info to make the right decision? For example, in the games I watch, there are lots of examples of the mis-pass, but how the hell do the players actually know it's coming? How do you, as player 1, not run to catch the ball? Is it ESP? Telepathy? What? There are plenty more examples I could cite, but while I'm comfortable screaming at the players on the pitch, I'm less comfortable (make that extremely uncomfortable!) shouting at players on the same team as me and telling them what to do, where I am, to pass the ball to me and so on. Any insights into how all this works? What is the dull roaring noise I hear from players as they shout at each other? What are they saying???

5) Confidence. I think this is tied with both point 4 and point 6, but although I'm confident in every day life, I'm less so under pressure...

6) I'm a perfectionist... In any team sports I've played (which, admittedly, isn't a lot), I can't stand making mistakes. I feel like I've let myself down, my team down, and that everyone is thinking 'man, what a tool for missing that pass/skewing that kick/dropping that ball'. Rationally, I understand that people make mistakes, but I can't seem to channel that into a critique of my own play. I also feel like that when I have the ball, I have to do something amazing with it, like scoring a try, making a break etc etc. This, coupled with my intense competitive streak, isn't a great combo (imo).

7) Ideally, I think I'd like a nice, inclusive, no-win no foul, mistakes are accepted kind of environment in which to play and practice, but I'm not sure if this kind of environment is entirely antithetical to the whole game of rugby. Do clubs like this exist in Pittsburgh? Can anyone recommend a club?

I suppose the main question is 'am I built for team sports?'. My own thinking is 'no' and I've always derived more pleasure from solo-sporting pursuits than I ever have from team games, so I'm wondering whether I should just carry on being the avid supporter of rugby rather than an active participant.

Any insights, comments, advice, help etc will be much appreciated. I recognise, however, there is always the ever-present danger that I'm bean-plating this, so please tell me if I fall into this category as well. I have put off asking this question for weeks!
posted by Scottie_Bob to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Pittsburgh Rugby Football Club, at least per their website, seems to be okay with "no experience necessary"....

I play roller derby, which has kinda been described as "rugby on wheels", so here's my insights and comments and whatnot -

Yeah, health insurance in the US is crappy. Yeah, if you get injured it's on your dime. But you might not get injured! I played for 3 and a half years before I got my first injury that required medical treatment. It's a crap shoot and luck of the draw.

You're almost 30? I was almost 35 when I started and was not "reasonably fit and healthy" at all. I gasped and plodded and thudded (and cried, and nearly vomited) my way through until I got to where I am now, at a healthy weight with fabulous bloodwork numbers.

Fitness benchmarks - you might want to ask the club if they have a "minimum skills" requirement. (Roller derby has one, through the WFTDA - you have to be able to do a certain number of skills/have a certain amount of speed and endurance/be determined to not be a danger to yourself and others before you're allowed to play)

As for what's going on out on the field, this'll get taught to you. (I didn't know a THING about derby before I started - I saw ROLLER SKATES and GETTING KNOCKED DOWN and thought "I NEED TO DO THAT NOW NOW NOW". Everything else, I learned as I went and am still learning.)

Derby is my first team sport. (of course, my prior sports experience was bowling, orienteering and the Couch-to-5K once, so I don't have much solo sport experience either) It takes a while to get used to the team mentality, to realize OMFG IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU (which can help the perfectionist thing, maybe - you might screw up, but if the end result is still "we scored the points/did what needed to be done", no harm no foul). And there's built-in camraderie amongst teammates that you don't really get from a solo sport.

so, long story short, GO BE AN ACTIVE PARTICIPANT.
posted by Lucinda at 10:54 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Every rugby player has told me if you play rugby you will get injured. Not a matter of if but when, and severity is relatively random and all over the map. The bigger, stronger, and more skilled you are theoretically the less likey the rate of injury, but there's no guarantee a less skilled person won't hit you in a way that tears up your knee. I wanted to play, but don't have health insurance (and prioritize other athletic stuff over rugby) so decided that risk wasn't worth it to me.
posted by Anonymous at 11:04 AM on April 3, 2012

Ideally, I think I'd like a nice, inclusive, no-win no foul, mistakes are accepted kind of environment in which to play and practice, but I'm not sure if this kind of environment is entirely antithetical to the whole game of rugby.

Just chiming in to say that inclusive, no-win no foul, mistakes are accepted is JUST what rugby is made for in my experience. I've played in the States for the past 8 years or so, learning to play in college and joining a local club in Boston after graduation.

Biggest tips:

1. The most important thing is endurance. Seriously. Tackling will come, passing and ball handling will come, communication and "ESP" with your teammates will come. But if you are able to actually run, ruck, maul, and generally move for 80 minutes straight, you will be starting off on the right foot.

2. Rugby players are (generally) nice! Even the big terrifying ones. Head to the bar after practice, go to the Saturday socials, and talk to people - ask these same questions, and they'll fill you in on how things work with the local club.

3. Not everyone is going to be an all-star (full disclosure, I am not an allstar), but that is a generally accepted fact. There are positions for non all-stars. All star positions include flankers, scrum halfs, fly halfs, full backs, maybe 8 man depending on the team. These people have to run the game, and will tell other people where to be.

Not to say that the other positions aren't important - they are! - but there is often less 'pressure' on them from other team members. I'm a second row. Second row is effing hard. It's a work out, I provide a lot of value for my team in rucks and in scrum downs. But no one is relying on me to call a play, to watch the way the other team is setting up, to make snap decisions and tell other people what to do. Find a non all-star position to start with, and work you way up. You are probably too small for second row, but inside or outside on the line might be a safe place to start.

Also, rugby is awesome, and you should definitely learn how to play! There are plenty of people on my team who didn't start playing until their 30's or later.
posted by CharlieSue at 11:09 AM on April 3, 2012

Rugby in the States is still growing as a sport right now, so most leagues don't expect you to be super-conversant with the game and are more geared towards beginners. In that way, your move to the States is a distinct advantage!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:24 AM on April 3, 2012

Best answer: Rugby is awesome! I don't know Pittsburgh's teams at all, but there are a large number of teams in the Philly area, and rugby is really popular in Pennsylvania as a whole. We have the Eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Union which is a great resource for local teams, forms, CIPP etc. If there isn't an immediate counterpart, I'm sure they could help direct you towards the best places in your area.

As for the injuries, yes, they will happen. You should have a plan in place before you start playing, i.e. find a GP, make sure your insurance covers everything (bonus points if they offer PT coverage or have no referrals for specialists,) have the forms all filled out at your new GP, etc. There should also be a medic on duty at games. On the other hand, I was an enthusiastic but not great winger for three years and the worst thing I got was a kick in the face and six stitches.

Age: at least one of our refs is in his sixties, from the UK, and still plays with a local club.

Practice: your team will no doubt have a training program and to some extent this will depend on what position you play. On the other hand, conditioning for strength, agility, and endurance will serve you well no matter what. If you run, add in more sprints. If you don't run, start. Agility drills are relatively easy to set up and there are many eager youtube videos for this. You could buy a rugby ball and just start getting used to throwing it, holding it, etc.

Communication: rugby does have plays! And you get to know your teammates. There's a lot of shorthand that goes on. Also, honestly, color coordination helps a great deal when running....

5/6: oh, you will make mistakes. This is because every single person does. Rugby is a game that requires a lot of thought and mental training as well as physical strength and there is literally no way to come in and make zero mistakes. The good news is that everyone makes mistakes. You won't be alone! And trust me, you will learn from them. Oh, also, maybe this is more true at the women's collegiate level, but virtually no one had played rugby before joining. The level of uni rugby I saw in the UK was leagues (literally) above even the good teams in our division. American teams will be used to people without a strong background or even a real background at all.

Supportive: I did ballet for fourteen years before rugby and I have never regretted the change. It can be immensely supportive and instructive, and the team atmosphere is often unparalleled. I suspect you can find a club that has a limited game schedule or with less intense contact. Also, you could probably just drop by and watch practices and see if they look like something you'd fit into. Good luck! Have fun! With you...
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:28 AM on April 3, 2012

1) You willl get injured playing rugby. You will, hopefully, have health insurance, and also learn how to avoide serious injury. One of the best ways of avoiding injury is through good form & body position. Your team should teach you this. Another good method of avoiding injury is strength - so your muscles can take the impact, instead of bones and joints.

2) No. Also, there are specifically 'old boys' teams that only have older players. Over 30, Over 40, Over 50, etc. They physicality of the game decreases.

3) Benchmarks vary by position. Without knowing more about you, it would be hard to say what number you'll be. Rugby is a LONG game on a big pitch, so pushing up you miles, mixed with sprinting, will be a big boon.

4)Practice, practice, practice. Every team handles this slightly differently - we would let the ball-carrier make decisions (when we weren't running pre-planned plays), and it was the responsibility of the other players to let him or her know when they were avialable to help. 'ON LEFT/RIGHT!' for a pass, 'WITH YOU!' for a ruck or scrum.

5) Practice.

6) Rugby is a team sport - you are expected to help the team. I play(ed) prop - we were not expected to score trys, make passes, catcha kick, kick the ball, etc. We ve a well-defined role and trained for it.

7)You are looking for what is known as a 'social club' or 'social side.' There are MANY. Some will be unaffiliated, some will have whole teams (D1/D2/D3/Social), and some will be attached to colleges.

meMail me if you want to talk more.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:15 PM on April 3, 2012

When I was in my 30's, I decided that I wanted to play rugby. I knew absolutely nothing about it (other than it was a team sport and considered rough). Physically, I was in very good aerobic shape (running), not so great muscle tone. I was living in Southern California at the time, and was able to find a team that needed players and was supportive about teaching novices. Further experience seems to indicate that this is not unusual. If a team says "no experience necessary", they probably mean it. If a team is competitive, they probably require tryouts and that's your clue that the team isn't for you.

By the way, I had a great time with it.
posted by gteffertz at 4:39 PM on April 3, 2012

Best answer: I played rugby for 10+ years -- women's rugby, but with a lot of clubs that were affiliated with a men's team. It is super awesome and I am totally jealous of you (I had to quit and miss it like mad).

Taking your questions in turn:

1. You'll probably get injured at some point if you stick with it for long enough. That said, most injuries are fairly minor (sprained ankles are common). At the end of every game you will have cuts and bruises and will relish the hell out of them. I had to quit playing because of an injury but it was a totally freak accident (seriously, nobody I know, including the doctors, had ever seen that injury before in any context) and I played for over 10 years before that. Before that I didn't really have anything that kept me out for more than six week (and even that was only once). I have known people who played for decades. I did most of my playing in the US and if you have health insurance -- which you will -- then it's not a big deal in the vast majority of cases.

Like others are saying, starting playing in the States is probably an advantage for you! Most players start of not knowing what they are doing, so simply knowing the game and coming from a country where it is played will have you well situated.

2. Age should not be a problem. Loads of people play in their 30s and 40s, or even start then. You'll probably feel a bit sorer after games than younger players, and will want to start with a "social club" rather than the super competitive kind, but seriously, not a big deal.

3. Fitness benchmarks - if you join a well-coached team at the beginning of the season then you'll gain a lot of the necessary fitness before the games start (and if you don't join at the beginning of the season a decent coach shouldn't put you in until you can handle it - or you can start playing only half a game, etc). If you're a runner you're probably fine aerobically to at least start practices. I'd advise lifting weights 2-3 times a week but I've known people who joined having never done so, and they picked it up once they joined. You'll figure out the benchmarks once you're on a team.

4. For most teams, the communication is largely through the scrum half / halfback and the fly half. You will definitely NOT start out in those positions. Your job will be listen to what they and the closest other positions tell you to do. You'll also have to be very verbal about where you are and when you are in a good position (you often shout things like "On your left! Now!" or "Coming over!". Trust me, you will not feel like an asshole communicating in this way - this makes you a good team player). Communication skills (what to say, when and how to say it) are a big focus of practice so you will pick them up. I'd guess at your size and given your skills you'll probably be somewhere in the back line which means you'll be listening to the fly half and the centers or whoever is near you. But again, you pick this all up in training, and at the beginning at least you'll do a lot more listening than telling people what to do.

5. Rugby builds confidence like very little else. You get caught up in it and find yourself doing things you wouldn't have thought you could do.

6. Everyone makes mistakes. Rugby will probably help you get over those perfectionistic tendencies because EVERYONE does, many many times per game - there is just so much complexity and so much to do that there's no way to not make a mistake. Nobody will hate you and particularly as a beginner you'll be expected to make mistakes -- in fact when I was training beginners I'd prefer them to make a bunch of mistakes because that meant they were going out and trying. Seriously, the worst thing you can do is hang back and not do anything because you're afraid of messing up.

7. I don't know the clubs in Pittsburgh but I'd be gobsmacked if you couldn't find one that was pretty chill. Most clubs in the US are.
posted by forza at 7:49 PM on April 3, 2012

I played for a long time.

1. You WILL get injured. I had knee surgery, concussions, broken nose/toes/fingers.

2. Rugby clubs are generally pretty cool with newcomers

3. Best to learn while scrimmaging. Practicing skills is cool, but most players learn while trying to play. It's second/third/etc. phase play that is tricky, and there's no real way to practice well for the decision-making required when a ruck or maul forms around a bunch of backs and the forwards have to line up for the ball, for example.

4. You WILL get injured.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:55 AM on April 4, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all your brilliant answers folks, it's really appreciated. I'll get a bit fitter over the summer and then probably take the plunge in September for the next on-season. The injuries are the part I'm afraid of most (I quite like being able to walk!), but we'll see how it goes.
posted by Scottie_Bob at 12:50 PM on April 4, 2012

Hi, retired fullback (in Canada) here. Yes injuries caught up with me in my early 30's and I benefitted from free medical care but I was definitely on the unlucky/reckless side.

Some great advice/answers above. Sounds to me like inside/outside centre might be the position for you. Not a ton of skills required other than passing/tackling. The scrum half and moreso fly half/standoff are the decision-makers for the backs, all you really need to do is follow set plays that are called pre/during scrums, lineouts etc.

I'm no expert but as others say rugby is newish but growing in the US, especially in the northeast so there should be clubs with 2-3 sides so you could start at a level less than all-star and knowledge/skills wouldn't be expected anywhere near in the UK where rugby is more part of the culture.

I was big on cross-training in my day... jog, sprint, chin-ups in schoolyard playground, run, push-ups, run, sprint, sit-ups, uphill sprints... you get the idea. The biggest fitness factor is recovery time from anaerobic exertion.

Go for it, excellent game and IMO there is no better "social" sport!
posted by raider at 10:27 AM on April 6, 2012

Best sport ever. I started playing after 30, too.

But, as mentioned above, the house always wins. There's something like 2 injuries, on average, per match. And that's out of 30 on-field players. So stay out there long enough, you'll dislocate a finger or tear an MCL/ACL or get a cauliflower ear or something like that. But get ready for this paradox if you start playing: The risk/reality of injury will be there, but like thousands before you who've played rugby union, you'll likely develop such an obsession with the sport that you'll try to play even with a nagging injury trying keep you on the sidelines.

As for the fitness aspect, it's a lot more cardio than anyone ever thinks it's going to be. Imagine an 80-minute version of doing up-downs and then sprinting a few meters, very little stoppage if any. Anything interval-based is good prep, but going to a practice and playing in matches will be where your fitness, and developing a mindset to only expend energy when it matters, will be developed.

Any club in any city should have enough players to form an A-side (your best 22 players) and a B-side (younger high school age kids, less fit/experienced players, and old boys of 35+ years), and that B-side match, usually played after the first, is where you'll learn a lot. Also, watch a lot if you have access on your cable provider, and check out a site called Lots of rugby porn there to remind you how fun it can be when it gets especially difficult, frustrating or painful. Whatever team you find, I have faith you'll be taken under a wing of a more experienced player or coach and taught where to be and how to move. It's inevitable: you're going to make a lot of mistakes, best to do them in a B-side match, and, as an experienced back on our team told me, "It's best to make any mistakes at full speed, not half-assed."

Bear this in mind, though - I can't remember ever having more fun at any period in my life than the time between when I was sitting in a local pub watching the last FIFA World Cup (the one Spain came away with) when one of my now rugby coaches recruited me simply by telling me that "God put you on this planet to play second row" and the months that followed, where I was out of breath, bruised, losing toenails (they get stepped on a lot), taking ice baths, etc. most every afternoon.

Get ready, it's going to be great. Just don't let it intimidate you. It's mean, but you'll love it, I'm sure.
posted by Palamede at 3:36 PM on April 16, 2012

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