Family suburb and business center.
Historic farming community.
And… the home of rugby?
Williamson County doesn’t conjure up images of the rough sport of rugby, but three youth teams are trying to change that.
One tackle at a time.
Raptor Rugby Club, a Brentwood-based club that attracts players from Williamson County, won state titles in May for its high school boys team, high school girls team and college boys team. The title matches were held in Murfreesboro.
Players, coaches, families and other supporters are thrilled with the wins and the growth of the sport in the region.
“Our program is definitely growing, and I think it’s growing in the state,” said Raptor Rugby Club coaching director Mike Orefice.
Rugby is a popular sport in Europe and British Commonwealth countries like Australia and New Zealand. It’s similar to a smooth game of American football. Players attempt to drive a large oval-shaped ball towards an opponent’s goal line and score points by knocking the ball down into the opponent’s end zone or kicking it between the goal posts.
Unlike American football, players do not wear pads and are not allowed to pass the ball forward.
Tennessee is home to several competitive teams, including the Raptors, Father Ryan, Harpeth Harlequins, and Germantown Rugby Club. Orefice said many players compete on Raptor teams while competing on school teams in other sports, often football. He said the relatively low cost of the game – the only equipment needed is a pair of cleats and a mouth guard – is also appealing to families.
“It’s the ultimate team sport,” said Dan Griff, coach of the high school boys’ team. “Everyone has the chance to play in attack. Everyone has the chance to play in defence. Everyone has the chance to run with the ball.”
Nolensville High graduate Stephanie Esmonde started playing rugby six years ago after watching an older sister play the sport. Esmonde has made a habit of explaining her sporting hobby to her friends. After all, rugby is less popular than other sports she has played like tennis or football.
“One hundred percent you have to sell people to rugby,” Esmonde said with a laugh. “I tell them it’s a combination of soccer and football.”
Despite the aggressive and physical nature of the sport, Esmonde said the gaming community is extremely tight.
Enemies on the field become friends after matches.
Esmonde is now a state champion and is heading to Lander University in South Carolina on a rugby scholarship. She is delighted to continue her career in rugby and to remain close to the sporting community, her favorite aspect.
“I really never thought my generation of female rugby players would be able to play collegially and get scholarship opportunities,” Esmonde said.
Barron Lankford, a freshman at Brentwood High, made the college team in 2022. He first played rugby when his family lived in South Africa when he was around seven, but he didn’t didn’t return to the sport until last year, thanks to a friend’s recommendation.
Now he’s addicted to the rush of energy that comes with scoring a try, like scoring a touchdown in American football.
He will be on the high school team next year when he starts at Brentwood High.
“It’s like total excitement,” Lankford said. “I feel like, in the moment, you’re so energetic and excited, and once you cross the finish line, you feel like you’ve done it.”
Cole Villena covers Williamson County at The Tennessean, part of the USA Today – Tennessee network. Contact Cole at [email protected] or 615-925-0493. Follow Cole on Twitter at @ColeVillena and on Instagram at @CVinTennessee.