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FRANKFORT, IL — For all the sports he had played as a kid, John Rizdy admits he had no idea what to expect the first time he showed up to practice with the South Suburban Rugby Club.

Rizdy, now a 16-year-old Lincoln Way Central High School student, is a multi-sport athlete but like many newcomers to a sport that was established in 1845 at England’s Rugby School, there were more questions about what he was walking into than answers.

The conundrum is one Rocky Dellamano is accustomed to hearing. Dellamano, a South Suburban native who founded the club in 2013, wanted to build a rugby club that was inclusive above anything else and that provided a comfort zone for inquisitive athletes looking to try something new.

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The club is based in New Lenox, but includes players from virtually every South Surburban community including Lockport, Frankfort, Orland Park, Tinley Park, Mokena, Lemont, Manhattan, and the Joliet area. Practices will begin on Monday and the season runs from late March or early April and goes through championship weekend the first weekend in June.

Over the past decade, the South Suburban Rugby Club has grown into the state’s largest club that showcases a sport that Dellamano knows many don’t understand and often mistake for a game that is often mischaracterized as a brutal and violent form of football without pads.

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The South Suburban Rugby Club introduces a sport unfamiliar to many but offers teams for virtually every age group. (South Suburban Rugby Club photo)

But as players like Rizdy come to understand, when taught correctly, rugby turns out to be a sport that allows everyone, regardless of skill level or athletic ability to find a niche. While more traditional sports tend to showcase star players, rugby becomes more about building a team environment. That concept, Dellamano says, has been instrumental in growing a club that starts teaching fundamentals to kids as young as kindergarteners all the way through its high school ranks.

With more than 100 players on its roster, the South Suburban Cobras stress community over competitiveness, which coaches and players alike, say is what sets the club apart from other sports. While the Cobras have found their fair amount of success, most recently with a state championship at the 13-U level in 2022, coaches and club officials said that winning is not the main objective.

“The sport is fun — the sport sells itself,” said Dellamano, who played a year of football at Augustana College before playing and coaching rugby in England. “Our club and our program have had a lot of success in terms of on the pitch and off the pitch, but we’ve had a lot of fun.”

He added: “Winning is a consequence of how we approach it. We have fun teaching the fundamentals and playing team rugby.”

Bob Zimmer, who guided the Cobras’ 13-U co-ed team to the state title last season agrees.

“This is not always about being a champion,” he told Patch this week. “Winning is important, but it’s not number one. Learning the sport, growing the sport is number one.

“It’s much more about the sport and not so much about the winning.”

That much is evident based on the club’s players, who bring varying levels of familiarity and experience with rugby to the team. Some players, like 17-year-old Lockport High School seniors Candace Portfilio and Cecilia Izqueirdo, have family ties to rugby, which was played by their fathers.

Others, like Rizdy, come to the game with no previous knowledge or exposure. But what commonly happens, players have found, is that they are quickly hooked by a sport that Dellamano characterizes as a unique combination of soccer and wrestling rather than the violent football-type sport that many believe rugby to be.

Starting with Rookie Rugby, the club’s youngest age group, players are taught rugby’s fundamentals while coaches stress safety over anything else. Tackling does not begin until the fourth-grade level and the sport is played on a co-ed basis until players reach high school when teams split off into boys’ and girls’ divisions.

Rugby grows self-confidence for players, especially in girls who say that they have found a niche for toughness at the club level, (South Suburban Rugby Club photo)

Regardless of when players start, they find themselves fitting into a setting in which establishing a chemistry where everyone has a role is not only encouraged but becomes the norm.

“It’s the environment, it’s how all of your teammates and even the other teammates from the other team you go against become just become family and your life-long friends,” Izqueirdo said this week. “The thing about rugby is it can be a rough sport, but it can be 10 times more respectful and that’s something you learn in the game. You learn to be respectful and responsible. Honestly, it’s a lot of fun. It really is.”

The approach to responsible rugby starts from the start and continues throughout every age group. What starts with flag rugby shifts to a level where players are taught proper tackling techniques, which is based on a wrapping-up technique that greatly diminishes the threat of injury. Improper and dangerous tackling leads to penalties, red cards, and even disqualifications.

Players say that because the game is taught responsibly, recruiting new members becomes easier. While many parents and prospective players think of rugby as a game defined by brutality, Cobras players quickly find that if players approach the game the way they are taught, they won’t be injured.

Especially at the high school level, rugby is played in addition to other sports by competitors like Portfilio, who runs track at Lockport, Izquierdo, who competes in water polo, and Rizdy, who plays football at Lincoln-Way Central. Coaches approach the sport as an additional activity that players can add to their schedules rather than being a sport that becomes their lone focus.

When Rizdy started rugby as an eighth grader, he presumed it to be a “rougher version of football” but quickly found the sport to be something that could enhance his skill set in football.

“It’s a completely different sport than you’ve ever played,” he told Patch, adding, “once you play a game and meet other people, it becomes more like an everyday thing than just a sport.”

Many of the players who discover rugby through the South Suburban Rugby Club find it much different than they may have originally thought. (South Suburban Rugby Club photo)

The all-inclusiveness of rugby makes the game unique while also providing a unique competitive environment for athletes looking for something new. That’s perhaps most noticeable for girls like Portfilio and Izquierdo, who — while playing other sports on all-girls teams – found a comfort zone in a sport that not only provides a spot for everyone, but that also offers girls a place in a sport that many outsiders presume to be only for men and boys.

That’s where coaches like Cobras girls coach Brigid Murphy come in. Murphy played rugby at Gaelic Park in Oak Forest before playing club rugby at the University of Missouri. Murphy now introduces the sport to girls at the club level for the South Suburban club’s high school team. While her approach to teaching the game is like her other coaches, she blends in a unique message for girls who may be looking for something different.

“For me, it’s (about building) self-confidence for girls,” Murphy said. “You learn a lot about yourself playing rugby. …You just really gain that self-confidence of being a better person. You’re stronger, your fit, you’re smart.

“High school is really tough on girls and so giving them something that’s an outlet like rugby where they learn that it’s OK to be an aggressive female. It’s OK to play a sport that you hit in and you tackle and it’s OK to do all those things.”

For the club’s founder, Dellamano, convincing parents that their players will be safe in rugby can sometimes be an uphill climb. Too many Americans have misconceptions about the sport, which prevents them from allowing their kids to give it a try. But many parents are allowing kids to play football, where head injuries and concussions can become common. So, like his coaches, Dellamano stresses the benefits of rugby, often beginning with the fact that everyone can find success in being part of a team where everyone is included.

The fact that the same philosophy is shared by everyone involved in the South Suburban Club has allowed the club to grow organically and to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, which took a toll on many youth sports organizations.

Much of the growth comes from word of mouth and coaches looking for athletes who are simply looking to be active. While coaches aren’t recruiting players as a way of trying to lure them away from teams that they are already a part of, they use the originality of rugby to sell them on the sport and then allow the game’s appeal to do the rest of the work.

But the fact that everyone, including players who Dellamano says often find themselves in the “messy middle” of what role they could take on, can play a vital role in a team’s success.

“Whoever shows up, we’re going to make the most of it,” Cobras coach Jim Andresen told Patch. “Some kids are going to be great at certain things versus other (players), but everything balances out and gives these kids an opportunity. Maybe they’re not the superstar …but in this sport, everybody gets an opportunity to do great things. …there’s a nice place for everybody.”

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