A group of local rugby clubs have spent this summer helping to spread the game to a new generation of kids in Northeast Philadelphia.
Every Friday afternoon, at the Northeast Frankford Boys and Girls Club, a group of kids goes through the finer points of rugby, one of the world’s toughest sports.
Or, at least, that’s the plan…
“We’re going to play tag, I promise, but we’ve gotta do some of the fundamentals first,” Dave Codell, one of the camp’s organizers, said to a group of happy youngsters. “We’ve gotta be good teammates.”
The summer rugby program is a joint venture of Schuylkill River RFC, Philadelphia Women’s RFC, and the North Philadelphia Nomads RFC. It’s for kids of all ages and it’s geared toward those in the largely African-American Frankford neighborhood.
Codell is the president of the Schuylkill River club and also helps coach the Narberth Otters youth rugby club. He sees the program as way to help grow the game.
“It was an opportunity for us to give back to our community and find an area that’s maybe overlooked a little bit,” Codell said. He obtains time off from his job to help keep the program moving. “The northeast Frankford area and these kids in general, and come in and just be positive role models and everything else and provide some programming for them.”
On this particular day, the kids — some as young as 5-years-old — are learning how to pass the ball and work together as a team — there is no tackling with a group this young. Rugby is often compared to football because of the running, catching and tackling, but the coaches at this camp also compare it favorably to basketball — “It’s basketball with collisions,” Codell said — with its focus on quick, lateral passing and constant ball movement.
Codell said the 10-week program gets more in depth with the older kids but he’s happy to be able to do what he can for the youngsters.
“I wish that I was a good enough coach that I was in there teaching these kids the finer points of rugby and creating the next pro players,” he said. “Rugby is an Olympic sport now [it makes its debut in 2020], but we just want them to have some fun in general and if they grow a love of the game? Great.”
Codell credits the Nomads along with the Philadelphia Women’s Club for helping bring this program together.
Nomads coach and founder James Brunson, also known as J.B., said the program is all about helping the kids experience a new sport. A former basketball player, he started playing the sport in college just for fun and it became his passion.
“Well, when I first started the North Philadelphia Nomads [in 2013], we started playing other schools and other teams and a majority of them were suburban teams 90 minutes or so out,” Brunson said, catching his breath from leading drills with the kids. “We would step off the bus and it would be the first time they played an all-black team.”
Brunson spent this day running drills around the gym, along with help from Women’s Coach Kate Hallinan — or “Tall Katie” as the kids call her. Some of the smaller kids struggled at first with passing the ball before they finally got a groove going with a passing drill similar to one you would see in basketball.
“I like to see when kids pick it up,” Brunson said. “You can see it in their faces that they’re finally figuring it out and they get some success on it.
“It’s gonna make them want to do it more,” he added, “so the more success they have at doing this, the more comfortable they are with doing it, the more they’ll wanna do it.”
The Club anticipates as many as 130 kids will participate in this program and it’s expanding playing time to 40 hours a week for the rest of the summer.
That’s just fine with Codell, who raves about the chance to interact with the young players and share his love of rugby.
“Man, I’ll tell ya. I like working with kids. I like being a role model. I grew up in Villanova, man. I had a lot of privileges, let’s call it what it is. Lot of luck. Lot of good fortune, man. So to try to pay it forward with these guys and to see it working and see them happy; see them enjoying rugby and having a good time. It’s like the best feeling in the world.”