ussie leads increased rugby club dedication

David La

Coach David Finkel of the men’s club rugby team lists precision, concentration and pride as the cardinal elements for on-field success.
This trifecta, in one form or another, permeates every aspect of the team.
Practices are run with more precision than ever by Finkel and his assistants and the team is bolstered by another form of concentration, one of athletes well-versed in the fundamentals of rugby.
The end result is pride, fueling high levels of optimism and expectation for the fall season.
“It’s really moving forward,” Finkel said of the club team. “I’m really seeing an increased dedication among the guys.”
The commitment to improvement begins with Finkel. The fourth-year coach is upgrading the team’s talent by recruiting local high school rugby players.
Only a few years ago, Finkel recruited prospective players primarily from the Minneapolis recreation center’s weight room. The team consisted of athletes who by and large had no prior knowledge of rugby.
But a rapidly growing local high school club rugby scene — up from two teams in 1997 to nine this year — is providing Finkel with players whose experience matches their athleticism.
“I want to get this team to the top level,” Finkel said, “because I enjoy watching rugby at the top level.”
Finkel’s latest find is freshman David Hogan, a native of Australia with an extensive rugby background.
Hogan’s bedroom at his parents home in Minnetonka is littered with memorabilia from his 12 years of rugby. Pictures on his walls, trophies on the shelves and commemorative rugby balls encapsulate his career; five years in Australia, three years in Colorado, and four years in Minnesota.
This summer, Hogan played on the USA Rugby Under-19 National Team, who won seven of nine games while touring Australia.
“I hope I can live up to the expectations,” Hogan said. “I don’t want kids to say, `What’s all the fuss about this guy for?'”
The 6-foot-1, 185 pound Hogan is the team’s flat-half, a quarterback-like position of the back line. Coaches like Hogan for his intelligence and solid ball handling skills. In last weekend’s All-Minnesota Tournament, Hogan contributed six trys (five-point scores) in third-place Minnesota’s five games.
Familiar with the quality of rugby in many countries, Hogan sees the improving University club team as a microcosm for United States rugby.
“America is a sleeping giant when it comes to rugby,” Hogan said. “There’s so much athletic ability in this country. Rugby just needs to catch-on with younger kids.
“When kids start playing rugby from when they’re seven, eight or nine years old, America is just going to kill the rest of the world in rugby.”
Despite a recent influx of local high school club teams, rugby remains a sport carried by word of mouth rather than rite of passage.
Rugby is gaining momentum locally, due largely to word-of-mouth endorsements.
“Many of the kids that come to me have a father, uncle, neighbor or somebody that’s played rugby someplace or another,” Duane Schrader, coach of the Edina club team, said. “There’s a kind of a subliminal counter-culture of rugby out there.”
On the sports evolution chart, rugby falls somewhere between soccer and football, combining both to form a fast-moving, rugged game.
Even so, the popularity of rugby is far in the wake of football, America’s sport, and soccer, the world’s sport.
Schrader is unsure why rugby fails to catch on.
“Rugby is the perfect combination (of football and soccer),” Schrader said. “You have continuous movement, you have scoring, you have hitting and you have a chance for blood — all the things we as American spectators love to see.”
Hogan’s assessment is more blunt.
“It’s more of a man’s sport.”
For all its fluid motion and scoring, the physical nature of rugby remains paramount.
In Hogan’s first game with Edina, he suffered a break of the humerus bone in his upper arm, yet finished the game.
“(David’s) an animal,” brother Ryan Hogan said. “Don’t let him tell you any different.”
Rugby’s local rise, at the high school and collegiate level, provide all involved with renewed belief the game is emerging from its underground status.
When rugby finally explodes, when players like Hogan are cultivated locally rather than imported, Schrader is sure of the result.
“Hell, we’ll be as dominant as we are in other sports.”

David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected]