Despite international popularity in the U.S. the century old game of rugby has largely been overshadowed by other contact sports like American football, soccer and lacrosse. This summer marks the first time since 1924 the game will be played in the Olympics.
The Las Cruces Horny Toads are strapping their boots on, doing some warm up exercises and going over some last minute strategies before taking the field for their first rugby match of the Chupacabra Tournament in Las Cruces.
In this version of football most players go without helmets or padding. And they don’t perform dance routines when they score. Rugby is a continuous head to head, muscle to muscle, multi-skilled game- and demands every player can run, kick, pass and tackle.
Rugby has become one of America’s fastest growing sports. Las Cruces Horney Toads Captain Justin Karrenberg says he was hooked in high school.
“A friend of mine asked me if I wanted to go play rugby and I wasn’t very familiar with it. I said yes and so for the next year we pretended to be in college so we could play on the college team. Then once we got in to college we just kept playing and we just went from there.’ Karrengburg said.
Rugby only started gaining real traction as a contact sport in the U.S. around ten years ago. But Karrenberg says southern New Mexico’s rugby tradition goes back much further.
“This is a pretty deep culture in New Mexico since the 70's. For our 40 years we are having the celebration, we will celebrate our anniversary. To have that history makes for a better future. In 70's and 80's we were winning national champion ships back then.” Karrenburg said.
New Mexico rugby isn’t as strong or as organized as it was in its heyday.
Karrenberg says his team is always looking for new blood. He says he was stoked when the Horney Toads recruited a new player from South Africa a nation that lives and breaths rugby.
“I got here and needed some South African things to do and kind of came across a rugby team which is pretty much pot luck and unusual, but so far so good.” Nathan Blair said.
Nathan Blair moved to Las Cruces recently for a job at a winery. He says he’s been playing the game since he was a seven years old. Though most American players didn’t start until later in life they’re holding their own.
“A lot of them do come from American football back grounds so from a perspective of being tough and being fit they are pretty decent in that regards” Blair said. "It is just the sense of kind of getting to grips with rugby terminology and how it is done.”
With the game now being played in the Olympics, Captain Karrenburg says he hopes more American men and women will take up the sport.
“It is just really growing, now it is in the Olympics is a lot more visible to people, so it is becoming a lot more familiar than it was.” Karrenburg said.
Ten teams played in the Chupacabra Tournament, teams came from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, El Paso as well as one team from Ciudad Chihuahua, Mexico. Captain Rafael Chavez says though Mexico didn’t make the Olympic qualifiers rugby has been a popular sport in his country for some time. He says it’s more rigorous than soccer.
“It is the most demanding sport that I have played , when you run like crazy you have to hit people that are way bigger than you some times.”
Rafael Chavez says he wants to see more clubs playing in the border region.
“We were used to going to Monterrey, Saltillo other places but to travel from Chihuahua south it is way, further than coming here to El Paso or Las Cruces we are mostly trying get over here.”
This year, the Santa Fe Santos took home the trophy. But that didn’t discourage Captain Karrenberg. He says the Las Cruces Horny Toads hope to win in the U.S. league’s national competition. South African Nathan Blair says there’s plenty of time to train for that. In the meantime Blair says he wants to make sure his American teammates keep perfecting their game.