This is a profile story about a high school rugby player.
|By CORY STEGER
There is an adage in sports that if somebody is so dominant against the rest of the competitors that it appears he is "a man playing against boys."
When Gahanna Lincoln High School junior Rory Houston plays rugby with the Ohio State B team, he is literally a boy playing among men.
Watching Houston play with Ohio State would lead one to believe he is entering his junior year of college, instead of high school, because his skill level allows him to blend in with the rest of the players.
However, the eye test also showed that Houston, who at 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds was among the smallest players as he held his own against guys as big as 6-4, 230.
Houston was invited to practice with the second club team at Ohio State after a recommendation from Westerville Worms coach John English.
It's not uncommon for local high school standouts to get an opportunity to practice with a college team, but it is rare they are asked to play in a game. Yet there was Houston, suiting up for a game against the club team from Marion and trying to avoid the post-game fight.
"I never thought I would've played for them, I thought I was just going to practice," Houston said. "When I went onto the field, I felt like I couldn't mess up, and I had to do well. We ended up winning the game."
Playing for Ohio State wasn't his only achievement. Following exceptional play for the Worms, who recently finished as runners-up in the Midwest Youth Tournament on June 12-13 in Elkhart, Ind., Houston was invited to join the Ohio Elite's U-17 team. The Ohio Elite, which also fields a U-19 team, searches for the best players across the lower half of the state. Houston became the only central Ohio native on the team, and he now serves as captain. But being a good player by itself wasn't the only reason Houston was invited to join Ohio Elite.
"It's not like an environment in varsity sports where somebody walks you through things like study tables," Ohio Elite director Chris Hopps said. "One of the cornerstones of the team is accountability, and that helps out on and off the field. We expect (the players) to do things on their own, and if they don't do that, then they're left off the team."
In middle school, Houston played as a defensive end for the football team. He started playing rugby in seventh grade and decided to quit football because he felt football at the high school level wouldn't be fun.
"What's a sport without fun? I never felt that way with rugby," Houston said.
Houston plays the hooker position, a key to offense and defense is considered one of the most versatile positions. The hooker is responsible for winning the ball in the scrum and without the use of his hands getting it back to a teammate. Going against the opposing team's scrum formation, the hooker is considered one of the more physical and dangerous positions.
The hooker also is responsible for accurate throw-ins on line-out plays, which occur after the ball has gone out of bounds. Houston is a natural fit at the position, and he can attribute some of his success to his father, Ronald Houston.
Ronald played rugby for various school and recreational teams in Scotland for 18 years. In addition to playing hooker, Ronald also played flanker and scrum half.
"He's got the same level of aggression that I did, and I don't know if that's the Scottish blood or not," Ronald said. "He's really taken it upon himself to lead the forwards, much like the offensive line football. He's not that big but it doesn't matter who he comes up against, he doesn't pull back. He's got a lot of faith in his own abilities. I remember when I played, I was always the told, 'The bigger they are, the harder they fall,' and that's what I've tried to get through to Rory."
There is a large push by those involved with the sport, including the Houstons, to get rugby recognized as a varsity sport in Ohio. This is difficult though because rugby is perceived as a sport that fosters overwhelming physicality, is unorganized and played by athletes who aren't good enough for other sports.
"The largest hurdle is, 'None of my kids want to play,' or 'You'll kill my football team,'" Ohio Youth Rugby Association president Kurt Weaver said. "Some people feel it's too rough of a game but injury rates are more comparable to soccer than football. It's much more controlled contact than in football. With football, the Westerville coaches love having their players play rugby because they come back as better tacklers, and they're more fit."
In order to reach varsity status, there must be at least 150 teams statewide before the OYRA, commonly referred to as Rugby Ohio, can petition the OHSAA. When high school rugby first started in Ohio in the early 1990s, there were 10 teams in the state. Now there are 1,200 players on 62 teams and Weaver believes that with the current rate of growth rugby is experiencing that it could become a varsity sport within four years.
"Rugby is low cost, involves a lot of kids and has both boys and girls involved. That's a great opportunity," Weaver said. "We don't need new fields built or special equipment, all you really need is a ball. In a time of economic downturn, rugby is a great sport to get involved with."