RUGBY IS ON the rise in Northern California, and that couldn’t be any truer than in Marin. For more than 40 years, the Marin Highlanders have not only introduced rugby to Marin youth, but have also set them on a path to success that produced multiple college All-Americans and the opportunity to play for the USA National team. The brainchild of Redwood High School students and brothers Kerry and Patrick Farley, the original club was only big enough to field one team in 1980. Fast-forward four decades and the Highlanders are now a nonprofit with a dedicated volunteer board and a group of professional coaches with international experience, helmed by head coach Eóin O’Toole. Originally from Ireland, O’Toole started playing rugby at age 7 and has championed it ever since. With rugby rejoining the Summer Games after an absence of more than 90 years and the Rugby World Cup Sevens coming to AT&T Park in July, the club is more than ready for the next wave of interest in the sport.
What type of person is drawn to the sport?
People who are looking to be fit and have a whole lot of fun. Rugby is known for its camaraderie and the lifetime friendships that are born out it. The club itself was built on the idea of inclusion, which was an early emphasis of the Farley brothers when they founded the club. The original team featured soccer and football players, as well as students who were interested in sport but not in the traditional options available at the high school level. Today, the Marin Highlanders are proactively outreaching across the county to youth who like contact sports, and they have partnered with organizations like Southern Marin Youth Football to keep their players fit in the football off-season through crosstraining in rugby. “We participate in the Rugby NorCal Premier League, so team members get the opportunity to compete at the highest levels in the Bay Area,” says O’Toole. The Highlanders’ high school teams moved up to the Premier League level in 2017, which speaks to the strength of the coaches, the health of the club and the growth of the sport in Marin. And also to the opportunity for team members to be seen on a bigger stage. A number of the Highlanders are currently playing collegiately. The fastest-growing sport on college campuses today, rugby is available as a club sport and as a varsity sport with scholarship opportunities.
Why do people play?
The values of the sport aren’t just lip service to the Highlanders; they are actively taught as part of the game, both on and off the pitch. “Our motto is ‘creating future leaders through the great sport of rugby’ and we work to reinforce the sport’s values of integrity, passion, solidarity, discipline and respect in everything we do,” says O’Toole. “It’s one of the reasons that parents are turning to rugby for their children.” And because of the global nature of the sport, the club also works hard to introduce its players to other cultures: “We’ve taken our teams to places where rugby is really part of the fabric of the country, such as Canada and Ireland, and next year, we’re going to New Zealand. We want to expose our players not only to the sport as it’s played in other countries, but also to the different cultures of their peers there.”
How to get involved?
Don’t know a scrum from a scramble? No problem, no rugby experience is necessary, just the willingness to learn the game and participate as part of a team. The club is open to Marin students ages 6 to 18. With more than 300 youth currently participating each spring, the Highlanders feature coed teams for kids under 12, with middle and high school team options for boys and a high school team for girls. “With the top women’s teams in the world playing in our backyard this summer, it’s our hope that the World Rugby Cup Sevens will be a real catalyst to grow our girls’ program,” says O’Toole. “People believe it’s confusing and can be too physical a sport,” he adds, but “the game itself is much simpler than people think, and (at the club) we focus on the fundamentals of the sport and getting those basics right. And in terms of the physicality, the only person who can be tackled is the one holding the ball, so players are taught from the beginning how to tackle safely, as well as how to be tackled.” In fact, the Marin Highlanders have also seen an uptick in the number of parents interested in getting their children into rugby because they learn how to “tackle right.” Rugby uses leverage-based shoulder tackling, which effectively takes the head out of the equation, and is a style of tackling that has been adopted by football clubs like the Seattle Seahawks for being not only safer but also more effective.
To learn more, or sign up to play or volunteer, visit the Marin Highlanders website, which has contact information and a parent portal.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition June 2018, under the headline: “Time to Scramble.”