The 2016 Summer Olympics will feature a new look, when rugby sevens is added to the slate of events.
It will be the first time rugby in any form is featured in the Olympics since 1924.
Rugby, whether it be the traditional union version with 15 players or the truncated sevens version with shorter halves and seven players a side, is gaining traction at the high school club level in the Kansas City Area.
The Kansas City Jr. Blues won the Missouri state rugby title and placed fifth in this season’s National High School Rugby Championships recently in Elkhart, Ind. The rugby club at St. Thomas Aquinas won the Kansas state title and placed seventh at that same national tournament.
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St. Thomas Aquinas coach Tim Kluempers took a group of players from across the Kansas City area to the Rocky Mountain Rugby Challenge in Denver, where it lost the U17 title game to a team from Utah.
Kluempers started the club team at St. Thomas Aquinas eight years ago, just one of six. There are now 14 club teams in the Kansas City area, and almost all of them sent a player to Denver.
“I think almost every high school had at least one representative. We’re getting more and more every year, and every year we had two or three teams not represented, and it’s because they didn’t come out to the try out,” Kluempers said. “It’s neat to see. The kids get to know each other. They play hard and beat on each other during the game, and after the game is over, they’re buddies.”
Four players — Jack Casey and Antonio Jablonski from St. Thomas Aquinas and the Junior Blues’ David Mershon and Kellen Shockley — will play July 16 in the Stars v. Stripes game.
Kluempers said there are 130 players in a non-contact youth league as well. All of it is designed to grow the game.
“The thing that I’m seeing is all shapes and sizes can play. The big boys get to run the ball, and the littler guys get to play and feel the support and protection of their teammates. If you teach the game the right way, rugby is about running into space, not running into people,” Kluempers said. “The first team I had at Aquinas, we could barely walk and chew gum. I told the boys ‘If you didn’t have ball, they couldn’t hit you.’ We were the best passing team around.”
The best chance to see Kansas City area rugby is Saturday at the Heartland 7s Tournament at Legacy Park in Lee’s Summit.
It features three divisions — boys high school, men’s open and premier qualifier. The Kansas City Blues will play host to the tournament and will be looking for their second premier qualifier title in the last three seasons.
Pool play in the morning will lead to knock-out rounds in the afternoon. Play begins at 9 a.m., with the championship round scheduled for 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults 17 and older. Parking is free.