Heartland 7s puts high school rugby in spotlight

07/09/2013 1:41 PM

07/09/2013 1:42 PM

The biggest problem for the KC Junior Blues, according to coach Chuck McKeon, has nothing to do with the team. Rather, it has to do with the other rugby squads they face.

“The biggest problem is that we don’t have a lot of competition in Kansas City,” McKeon said. “We have to travel a lot to find good teams to play, and that’s hard to do on a summer schedule.”

The Junior Blues proved that point emphatically last Saturday in the Heartland 7s Tournament at Legacy Park in Lee’s Summit. The Junior Blues, the Missouri state high school rugby champion, rolled through the tournament’s High School Division and defeated Kansas state champion St. Thomas Aquinas 29-5 in the final.

“It just all came together,” McKeon said of his team’s run through the tournament. “Aquinas had only seven guys, and we had a full complement of 10, so we could put fresh people in. I think we dominated every team in the tournament.”

One of several teams organized by the Kansas City Blues Rugby Club, the Junior Blues' program started in 1992 and is made up of top high school rugby talent in the area. This year’s seven-on-seven team includes players from Rockhurst, O’Hara and Lee’s Summit North.

In the fall the Junior Blues play traditional rugby, with 15 players on a side playing games that last 80 minutes. In the summer they play seven-on-seven, a more wide-open game with only two 7-minute halves. It’s a game that values speed over brute strength, more so than traditional rugby.

“We don’t have much size, but we’re a pretty quick team,” said Thomas Gibson, a recent Rockhurst High graduate who plays on the team. “All of our guys play the back line (in 15s) mostly. We just have a bunch of fast players.”

McKeon said they all benefit from being a part of the Blues' program, which dates to 1966 and has become one of the dominant forces in rugby both in the Midwest and nationally. The Blues’ top sevens club took third place in the Premier Division of the Heartland 7s and is in the hunt for a spot in the USA Rugby’s National Club 7s Championships.

“It all goes back to good coaching at the 15s, and then we have players who come up to play sevens in the summer,” McKeon said. “They’re very dedicated.”

Brandon Sullivan, who will be a senior at O’Hara in the fall, also credited the Blues' program, and rugby’s traditional camaraderie, for its success.

“It’s just the sport,” Sullivan said. “Everybody gets close. This is my fourth year coming up playing with them, and we’ve all been good friends ever since.”

Sullivan said he prefers the seven-on-seven game, and apparently many other players and fans are feeling that way as well. In 2016, sevens rugby will be contested at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which has helped pique interest in the sport.

“A lot of people around school have started talking about it, asking about it and coming out to games,” Gibson said. “It’s definitely growing in popularity.”

Which means the Junior Blues might be finding more healthy competition around here.

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