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Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009 01:22 pm

Springfield Celts looking for new young ruggers

The Springfield Celts Rugby Club has been playing since 1975.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SPRINGFIELD CELTS RUGBY CLUB

Most people have no idea that the capital city has its very own rugby team.

“The Celts used to be bigger in Springfield, and then we had a waning period and the interest came down,” says Brian Foreman, a member of the Springfield Celts since 1998. “People still say, ‘Springfield has a rugby team?’

“Yeah, they’ve been around since 1975.”

The Springfield Celts rugby club, a nonprofit organization with roughly 25 members, plays every spring and fall at Kennedy Park across from the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport. Most players like Foreman, a 35-year-old chemist for the Illinois Department of Transportation, played high school and college football. So far this season they’ve competed in three matches — against the St. Louis Royals, Southern Illinois University and Illinois State University — but they’re more focused lately on recruiting new, young talent to their sport.

Jim Carlberg, the Celts’ head coach, has been with the team since 1984. Rugby, an 80-minute, full-contact sport that combines elements of football, basketball, soccer and chess, continues to rise in popularity across the United States. But for some reason, he says, it hasn’t quite caught on in Springfield.

“The team has grown through good numbers and almost folded through the past 34 years,” Carlberg says. “We’ve seen highs and lows.”

The Celts have had trouble attracting players in their 20s — making it difficult to grow as an organization and to compete against younger and stronger teams. Carlberg seeks to remedy this problem by building a new youth rugby program in Springfield and the surrounding area.

He envisions 6-to-12-year-olds joining a rookie program, where they’d play non-contact rugby and focus on learning the sport’s skills. High school athletes, who normally play soccer or football in the fall, would filter into a Jr. Celts rugby program in the spring to learn advanced ball handling and tackling. Not only would young athletes learn a new set of skills, Carlberg says, but they’d also stay in shape for their primary sports.

“I’ve talked to a lot of high school rugby coaches in the Illinois area, and their corresponding high school coaches love the rugby program,” he explains. “Kids playing in the fall after spring rugby are double the capabilities.”

The Illinois Youth Rugby Association has already shown interest in starting a youth rugby club in the Springfield area, Carlberg says, so now he needs local high schools to help draft players for next spring. The Celts’ five-year goal would be to net these players after they move up to college rugby and then return to Springfield.

“The Celts would get a kid who has 10 to 15 years of rugby under his belt, but only be 22 years old,” Carlberg says. “That’s the ultimate player.”

The Springfield Celts Rugby Club started outreach efforts in the beginning of August, when they teamed up with the Illinois Inter-Agency Athletic Association to sponsor a rugby skills camp for at-risk youth from six children’s homes. Last week the team also passed out fliers and talked with students at Lincoln Land Community College.

For now, no experience is needed to play with the Celts — new recruits just need a good pair of spikes, a tough pair of shorts and a mouthpiece.

“The only thing required is the ability to come out and want to play,” Carlberg says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re big, short, skinny, tall. We train from the ground-up.”

For more information, go to www.celtsrugby.com.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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