Rugby team, players find success at Iowa State

AMES, Iowa -- Few Central Iowans have ever seen a rugby game, and fewer still know the rules. So Ames may seem like an odd place for rugby players to flourish.

But that is what is happening for some members of the Iowa State Rugby Club.

Three players returning to Iowa State this fall have spent the summer playing on top, senior-level rugby teams.

Two ISU ruggers, Patrick Girskis and Shane Vogt, spent the summer training and playing with one of the best first division men's teams in the country -- the Gentlemen of Aspen in Colorado. At the same time, John Clarke IV spent his summer playing for the University of Newcastle in Australia.

Girskis and Vogt were selected for the Colorado team with some exceptional play and a good word from the coach.

"The coach from Aspen was at the Big 12 Rugby Tournament last year," said Girskis. "And our coach [Malcolm Robertson] told him to keep an eye on Shane and me. I guess he did and liked the way we played and invited us to play for him this summer in Aspen."

Rugby is an ancestor to American football and resembles the game a little. In rugby, however, players wear no pads, play is continuous with no stopping after each tackle and there is no forward passing, only lateral passing and kicking.

Girskis, a senior in psychology, has found rugby success quickly. He had never played rugby before the spring 2005 season when friends on the team convinced him that he would enjoy the game. And he has.

"It was the best summer I've ever had," he said.

Clarke, a senior marketing major, played organized rugby in a high school league outside Chicago. Even though his dad went to Iowa State, Clarke didn't commit to coming to Ames until he knew there was a rugby club here.

"When I was applying, I looked to see if they had a rugby team," he said. "I knew that I wanted to play."

He enjoys the sport so much that when he decided to apply for a study abroad program, he targeted Australia, where rugby is very popular. He didn't try to hide the fact from his parents.

"They knew that rugby was a big part of why I was going to study in Australia," Clarke said. "But I got my work done, too. I was happy I found a way to keep competing."

The ISU Rugby Club plays games in both the spring and fall and, as a team, has done well recently. In the past two Big 12 Tournaments, Iowa State has placed second. And in last year's All-Iowa Rugby Tournament, ISU placed third -- its highest ever finish. Iowa State also won the 2005 Collegiate Cup tournament hosted by the University of Northern Iowa and placed second last spring.

The success of rugby and ruggers at Iowa State can be attributed to Malcolm Robertson, the coach who took over the program in 2005. Robertson, a program specialist at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, is a native of the African country of Zimbabwe and grew up playing the sport. He now wants to pass along his love of the game to players at Iowa State.

And the locals seem eager to learn -- even those, like Girskis, who had never played before.

"New players love playing rugby," Robertson said. "Because everyone can carry the ball, everyone can pass it and everyone gets to tackle. In American football, some players do some things and others don't. In rugby, everyone can do everything.

"In some ways it's nice to get players who never played before, because I can mold them," he added. "In other ways it's difficult, because they don't have the core skills that players need and they don't learn in football."

Robertson had never coached before taking the volunteer job here, but has 14 years of experience playing rugby.

Since rugby is not wildly popular in Central Iowa, some on the Iowa State Rugby Club are bringing Colorado, Australia and Zimbabwe a little closer to Ames.