Over 70 teams and over 2,000 kids will convene at the fields of Freedom Youth Rugby in Maryland in the 15th annual Potomac Rugby Union Youth League tournament.
The PRUYL has been fighting the good fight for youth rugby for many years, well before many regions in the country started rugby programs for kids.
This year’s tournament will have brackets for U9 up to U15, all tag rugby in the culmination of their season.
“When we started in our first tournament we had five clubs and I believe 200 kids,” said Pat Walsh, who pioneered much of the youth rugby in the region. ”By the 7th tournament we had 14 clubs and 700 kids, and no we’re over 2,000 kids. When I used to look at it I saw we were growing faster than any region in the country, but we knew that football and baseball had more kids in any one county.
“I felt that we really only could show true growth until we were forced to divide; which is what has happened.”
The kids in the PRUYL tournament used to come from Maryland and Virginia, but Rugby Virginia has split of its own event, with as many as 700 kids involved. That, said Walsh, is growth.
“The enthusiasm is the same,” said Walsh. “About 85% of our new families are from non-rugby families. If you depend on just rugby families to make this happen it’s going to take a very long time. And we’ve grown High School and U19 programs out of this.”
This is the one event on the PRUYL calendar where scores are kept. The kids, of course, know if they’re won or lost, but the coaches and the league don’t keep scores or standings. In this tournament, winners and losers are tracked, and the intensity does ramp up.
“Still,” said Walsh. “It’s just a game.”
Tournament director Mike O’Brien says he thinks this year’s tournament looks to be the best ever.
New and up-and-coming programs, such as PAX River are challenging the established programs such as PAC Youth, Lutherville, and Freedom.
The U13 division is usually considered the most competitive, and this year sees 22 teams in two divisions playing in the Hong Kong format. But the biggest growth is in the youngest division, U9.
“Three to four years ago there were few clubs that had the coaching resources to launch a program aimed at 1st- and 2nd- graders,” said O’Brien. “This year there will be 14 teams and the skills at the top of the U9 heap are impressive.”
The kids can hit their drop kicks with regularity, and with the right-size ball (a size 3), they are cacthing and passing with comfort.
“A skilled U9 can convert a size 3 ball over an age-appropriate soccer goal, building confidence and increasing engagement in rugby as their sport of first choice,” said O’Brien. “The Maryland area has always been a hotbed of tag rugby, attracting elite athletes from soccer, basketball, and football looking for a summer alternative that is fast, fun, and provides a great team workout.”
A number of programs have seen reduced numbers in the U15 tag programs as summer tackle for Middle School level players has grown in popularity. But that’s how the game is growing. It no longer is a big sell to have parents let their kids play tackle rugby at 14. That’s good for the game, just as it is that hundreds of 8-to-13-year-olds can come together on a July weekend to play rugby, and play it well.