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Collegiate Rugby Championships Day One: A Pro’s Perspective

Day one of the Collegiate Rugby Championships kicked off with the teams taking to the pitches under dreary, damp and humid skies Friday morning. The College Women began play on the fields adjacent to Talen Energy Stadium, while the high schoolers battled it out at the soccer complex in Malvern. The only way you could see today’s action is in person, but starting tomorrow ESPN will be broadcasting games live. The scheduled coverage for ESPN is as follows:

Saturday, June 2: 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Sunday, June 3: 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Sunday, June 3: 2 p.m. – 5 p.m. ET on ESPNews.

All the other matches featured in Talen Energy Stadium will be covered live on ESPN+, the first-ever multi-sport, direct-to-consumer subscription streaming service. But to experience the je ne sais quoi of the sport of rugby, try watching some of the weekend’s matches from a seat in the stands or a spot along the sidelines, You’ll be surprised at how quickly you become part of the event, and maybe even the rugby community.

This is one of the things we discussed with when professional hockey star Ashley Johnston, graciously checked in with us while she was backpacking through Olympic National Park in Washington State. ( PS-How cool is that?) Ashley is a local favorite on the ice, the defender having played all three years of the NWHL with the Metropolitan Riveters. As the team’s Captain, Ashley led the Rivs through a great season, culminating in winning the Isobel Cup, the trophy representing the NWHL Championship. From the Toronto area, Ashley was a stand-out hockey player in high school and at Union College, where she earned her degree in mechanical engineering, her off ice career. She was also an outstanding cross country runner, triathlete, and played both basketball and soccer as well. She also made it to the Clarkson Cup semi-finals and was on a league all-star team while playing in the CWHL. But Ashley has another passion in sports, peven greater than hockey: rugby!

Ashley plays rugby during her “off season” with the Sirens Women’s team of the Knickerbocker Rugby Club, a top tier Division I club in the US Rugby Union. We asked Ashley about her rugby roots, and this is what she told us. “I started rugby in high school in Ontario. It was one of the varsity sports and I absolutely fell in love with it. It has always been my favorite (surprising to most!). I played second mainly then 8 back” The eight is involved in a lot of tackles, and is as physical a position as there is in the pitch. To say an eight is right in the middle of things, is not an expression but a fact in rugby.

We also wondered how a life in rugby meshed with a life in hockey, especially at the level that Ashley plays in both sports. She gave us this definitive and insightful reply. “Rugby has always been the best conditioning for hockey- there’s nothing quiet like it. You need to have great endurance to play a full game, build your muscles to be powerful to take and give big hits. And then the speed development, both cognitively and physically is crazy. Hockey definitely has helped develop that last quality, as I think it’s one of the few sports faster than rugby. Then the coaching and strategy I’ve received from hockey has really helped me in reading the field and getting my head up.” It is true that the beauty and appeal of athletics is often in the uniqueness and detail of any particular sport. But as Ashley explained so well, the crossover benefits can be significant, and in hockey and rugby, each complements the other.

As we talked with some of the players and officials this week, there was a common theme that ran through most of their remarks. It concerned the singular sense of community as being so integral to the rugby community. Ashley concurred, and gave us her thoughts on the topic. “The rugby community is unique to every other sport and truly embraces a family atmosphere with everyone involved. I think that is helping the sport grow, with many clubs initiating grass root efforts.” She continued her remarks stating “ I’ve only been involved with American rugby since 2014, but even in the short time, the involvement with youth rugby every year has increased. The club I’m a part of, Albany Knicks/ Sirens, has a few amazing people running their rookie rugby program as well as multiple members being involved with high school and youth teams. I think this genuine desire to give back to the community is going to catapult rugby. I really look forward to seeing the sport grow especially in my home, the Albany, area” Ashley concluded her remarks with this observation.

Ashley Johnston executing a perfect tackle

“Additionally, similar to women’s hockey, I think the addition of rugby to the Olympics will cause the sport to explode in the next decade.”

You could see the passion that Ashley Johnston has for the sport reflected in the sweaty faces and dirt streaked uniforms of the high schoolers on the pitch in Malvern and the collegians in Chester. And in the cheers of support from the first wave of the weekend of friends, fans and spectators. A display not only of rugby, but also of the family that is rugby, here and on pitches around the world.

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