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What’s next for Gainesville’s new rugby team
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Gainesville's Joseph Toal tackles Columbus' Austin Marieta during Gainesville Rugby's first game of the season at North Hall Park on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

Sometimes, playing and watching the same old sport gets boring (looking at you, Super Bowl LIII). Lucky for you, the Gainesville Rugby Football Club is something new.

The club aims to bring its love of the English game to North Georgia by establishing itself in the community one practice and one game at a time.

“It starts with recruitment,” Spartans coach Bradley Fleming said. “In 2017, we came together and we had an interest meeting and we created a Facebook page … people who have never even heard of the sport came out and were interested in it.”

There were about 20 people at that interest meeting but Fleming is hoping to grow the team far beyond that.

“All are welcome, and no experience is required,” he said.

Gainesville Rugby Football Club schedule
Feb. 9 @ Atlanta Bucks Rugby Football Club, 1 p.m. at Walker Park, Atlanta
Feb. 16 vs. Athens Eagles Rugby Football Club, 1 p.m. at North Hall Park, Gainesville
Feb. 23 - OFF
March 2 vs. Alpharetta Bulls, 1 p.m. at North Hall Park, Gainesville
March 9 -10 @ St. Patrick’s Day Rugby Tournament at Daffin Park, Savannah
March 16 @ North Atlanta Rugby Club, 1 p.m. in Atlanta
March 23 - TBD, Playoffs

March 30 - TBD, Playoffs

Winning 17-5 at halftime of its first game Saturday, Feb. 2, the Spartans thought they had the game against the Columbus Rugby Football Club in the bag. They ended up losing 26-22, but that doesn’t mean the team’s dreams are dashed.

Fleming said after the game, he talked to people who said they enjoyed watching and others who wanted to try it out.

“A lot of people that I spoke to that came on Saturday were like, ‘That was a lot of fun,’” Fleming said. “It’s not like stop-and-go, stop-and-go. There’s no commercial break. I mean, it’s 80 minutes of rugby. And it is nonstop and it’s fast-paced.”

Rugby has few barriers to entry. All you need to start is a pair of cleats and a mouthpiece — nothing special or expensive.

And for most Americans, it’s different. It’s something unlike other stateside sports for both players and observers.

Fleming said anyone is welcome to join the Spartans. All you have to do is show up at a practice on Thursdays at North Hall Park and be ready to learn.

Roster

Starters:

1 - Sims Hazel, loose head prop
2 - Kinsey Hughes, hooker
3 - Bradley Fleming, tight head prop
4 - Josh Mihok, lock
5 - Steve Hill, lock
6 - Bryce Wiltermood, blindside flanker
7 - John Indergaard, openside flanker
8 - Dee Brown, eight man
9 - Jake Elhabbassi, scrum half
10 - Keaton Toal, fly half
11 - Kip Sparks, left wing
12 - Jordan Hexom, inside center
13 - Travis Bonning, outside center
14 - Dwight Bennett, right wing
15 - Cory Jenkins, full back

Note: In rugby, jersey numbers correspond to specific roles on the team. See: Rugby positions explained.

Drew Ferguson
Ollie Brown
Joey Allen
Josh Shapiro
Robert Duncan
Russ Wise
Matt Rider
Nick Reynolds
Andrew Benson
Dylan Day
Steven Briggs
James Gisonna
Tay Brown
James Herrington
Michael Cunningham
Ben Renner   
Zack Mann  

“We’ll teach you our plays, our drills” Fleming said. “Obviously, one of the biggest things is watching rugby. It’s a sport that you can go to practice, but you still might be like, ‘Wait, what am I doing?’”

When players see it in an actual game, things begin to click. He recommends watching games on Youtube. When players see it in an actual game, things begin to click. He recommends watching games on Youtube. That’s how Keaton Toal, the team’s fly half — the general and commander on a rugby team, according to the BBC — picked up the game

Learning a sport like rugby, which Fleming said is “like a combination between soccer and football,” can be difficult. Toal had to take a most of what he had learned throughout his life playing football, and throw it away.

“It’s totally different rules,” Toal said. “And in football, it’s stop and go, stop and go. In rugby, it’s continuous … It’s definitely a faster-paced game.”

It’s a demanding sport, so many people who played sports in high school but didn’t go on to play in college enjoy rugby.

“With rugby, you’ve still got that association with competing,” Fleming said. “Everyone still wants to compete. You may not be able to go to school for that but (with rugby) you still get to compete and can possibly win a championship.”

As part of the Georgia Rugby Union, Fleming said the goal is to win the local division, win the state championship, the Southern region and then go on to a national competition against teams from all over the country.

“It’s just blowing up,” Fleming said. “You get a lot of guys that might go to college and walk on in football and may not make the team, but they're still fit and want to do something. So they go play rugby.”

Fleming said rugby is a growing sport in the United States. It’s mostly played in other countries, but it’s beginning to grow in the states now — especially at the collegiate level.

Colleges often have students from outside the U.S. who are familiar with rugby. They start playing at their university and other students who may have never heard about it or played it join in.

People are getting more accustomed to it after seeing it on TV, too.

“Rugby is a very cultured sport,” Fleming said. “It just got added into the Olympics … and the U.S. are a very good team. It's gained interest because of how well (the Americans) did.”

Fleming wants the sport to grow and become a popular option for people in the area. With the interest he’s seen, he said he’s confident that will happen. Especially as the season goes on.

“If people are interested, even if they’re just curious, come try it,” Fleming said.

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Gainesville's Derobbias Brown plows through Columbus defenders at North Hall Park on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele
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