Club rugby benefiting from rise in interest
To the outside viewer, Rugby may seem like a barbaric sport, but the insider would know these are intelligent players who know what to do and when to do it in order to avoid injuries.
Rugby is a game where 15 men battle against each other to try and score points. There are physical encounters such as rucks, mauls and scrums to try and win the ball with a scoring system is very similar to football.
Rugby is considered one of the fastest growing sports in the country, and the community in Houston has shown that more than anywhere else.
Naturally, this growing interest in the sport has been beneficial for the Cougars. A club team that has been around since the 1980s has seen an increase of players, both those who have experience from high school and those who have no experience with rugby.
“As far as comradery goes, it’s a big help because we have a lot of support from the community,” head coach Connor Rehmet said. “We have men’s teams and high school teams like Katy and the Woodlands. As far as structure goes, it helps a lot because the more exposed to rugby, the better you are. It’s kind of like football. If you didn’t watch football growing up, it’d be completely alien to you, and most of these guys are brand new to rugby, so it’s a completely different sport from what they grew up with.”
The team has seen quite a bit of turnover in recent years, according to Ryan “Squirrel” Becker, but he says the involvement this season has been some of the best in recent memory.
“I’ve been here a long time, and I’ve seen many teams come and go,” Becker said. “This team has just been solid. We’ve had great numbers. We’ve had a lot of people turning up at the games, especially away games. Usually for away games it’s a struggle for us to get fifteen people. But at our away games we have twenty, (maybe) twenty four people showing up. I’m very proud of this team so far.”
The Cougars are continuing to improve on their quality of play every year. This year, the team followed up their success at the Southwest Conference Seven’s Tournament, where only seven men play each other in seven-minute halves.
The team went 4-1 with notable wins over Rice University and Baylor University. The team began the season competing in the Texas Cup last September, where the Cougars made it all the way to the semi-finals, beating University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas State University before losing to St. Edwards University, one of the top rugby schools in the state.
“There’s three different conferences in Texas,” UH Rugby president and junior wing Walter Topete said. “The Red River, which has A&M, UT, Baylor — big schools who have been playing for a long time. Then there’s the Southwest, which is ours. And then there’s Lone Star at the bottom tier. So basically the Texas Cup is a good opportunity for those three conferences to play each other, regardless of standing.”
From there, the regular season rolled along with games against Baylor, Rice, Texas State and the University of North Texas, as well as hosting the Saltillo Rugby Club from Mexico and the Houston United Rugby Team in a sevens round robin with Rice.
Along with Topete and his brother Rogelio, a number of returning players will be massive leaders for the talented players coming in.
But while there has been more commitment from the players and improved performances, the team has been unable to get funds to travel to the championships in Lubbock. This means the team will only finish third in SWC behind Texas State and UNT.
However, the season does not end there for the players. Now, they will transition completely over to the sevens side of the season, competing for a chance to get to the national championships.
“It’s not just one player, it’s all of us, and that’s because of the coaching staff,” Blanco said. “They’ve been working on us all the time and drilling us. Honestly, our high point is we’re trying to get to nationals. We believe we have the athletes. Now we just need the mental toughness and fitness aspect.”