Dover man gets a kick out of rugby

DOVER — When Kevin Phillipson moved to America in 1992, he brought his thick South African accent and his passion for rugby with him.

“I guess it’s always been part of my life,” he said. “I just play as much as I can.”

Mr. Phillipson first played rugby when he was 6 years old. His love for the game remains at the age of 50.

That love inspired him to introduce rugby to men and women at Wesley College, high school students in Central Delaware and men 18 and older in the area.

He is confident a strong rugby program at Wesley can attract more students to apply to the Dover college.

“We’ve already seen people look to Wesley for rugby,” he said.

A passion for the game

Mr. Phillipson landed in Minnesota when he was 27 and later relocated to Texas to play and then coach rugby.

“And when Dallas got very hot, I went back to Minnesota,” he said.

A work opportunity brought him to Dover in 1996. A self-taught computer programmer, he had a contract for a

Born in South Africa and now living in Dover, Kevin Phillipson has started men’s and women’s rugby clubs at Wesley College and is also looking to work with men and children in an effort to further the sport in the area. (Delaware State News/Kevin Phillipson)

Born in South Africa and now living in Dover, Kevin Phillipson has started men’s and women’s rugby clubs at Wesley College and is also looking to work with men and children in an effort to further the sport in the area. (Delaware State News/Kevin Phillipson)

company that owned fast-food franchises in Delaware, he said.

“I started out by helping people convert manual systems, old spreadsheet paper systems, into spreadsheet systems using Excel,” he said. “When I came to Delaware I did the Wendy’s project. I did another for Dover Air Force Base.

“Most of my work then was in the IT field. I was a Microsoft-certified professional at an IT company.”

That might have been his vocation but rugby was Mr. Phillipson’s avocation. He dreamed of sharing his passion for rugby.

In August, he began coaching men’s rugby at Wesley and then started a women’s rugby club in January with nine recruited players.

“They practice three to four times a week,” he said, The school is hosting a tournament April 29.

The men’s rugby club already has a successful season under its belt.

When Mr. Phillipson began the men’s club in August, he had 24 recruits who never had played the game before. Despite their inexperience, the men won 12 consecutive games in their tournament. Instead of participating in a league, the club hosted a tournament in which a series of games were played in one day.

“We lost our only game in the finals of the championship,” he said.

Perhaps with an eye to future success, Mr. Phillipson took four players from Wesley’s men’s club to Tiger Rugby Academy, an Olympic rugby camp in North Carolina.

“They spent five days seeing what it was like to be a professional rugby player,” he said.

Ben Miller and Will Johnson, players Mr. Phillipson referred to as standouts, attended the camp.

“We worked with some of the most knowledgeable people in the game from sunup to sundown every day,” Mr. Miller said.

Their week consisted of track workouts, skill sessions, lifting sessions and practicing with the local men’s team.

“We all came out with fine-tuned skills, as well as a much better understanding of the game,” he said.

Mr. Johnson said the camp was for anyone who wanted to improve in rugby.

“It was a eat, sleep, breathe, rugby type of camp,” he said. “It helped me, and the others that went, a lot.”

Whatever it takes

Both said Mr. Phillipson helps them improve.

“If you show him that you will consistently put forth your best effort, he will do whatever it takes to make you a better player and a better person,” Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Johnson agreed.

“If he sees something in you, he will try his hardest to help you get the knowledge you need for the sport, and get you to meet others that can help you,” he said.

Mr. Miller said people of all ages can play rugby, as long as they are physically capable.

“Coach Phillipson would be proud to tell you he played from when he was a kid to when he was 50 years old,” he said. “Lord willing, I will be playing rugby for years.”

Mr. Johnson also wants to continue playing rugby.

“I dream just like every other guy to become a pro in a sport they love,” he said. “And right now, my heart is in rugby.”

Long popular in other parts of the world, rugby is gaining ground in the United States. It was recognized as a professional sport in the United States in November, according to Mr. Phillipson.

“There’s a significantly better chance for an athlete to make it professionally in rugby than any other sport,” he said.

He points to pro football player Nate Ebner as an example. The New England Patriots player is on leave from the team while he trains with United States rugby team for the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics,

“Once you play rugby, you’ll never play football again,” Mr. Phillipson said.

Rugby has an inaccurate interpretation, he said.

“Most people say it is football without pads, but that’s incorrect. It’s soccer without tackling.”

The fast-moving game fits the athleticism of soccer players, track runners, hockey players and wrestlers; sports that require a strong upper body, he said. It also doesn’t start and stop like football.

“Rugby is not a sport for big guys,” Mr. Phillipson said. “Majority of the time it is much faster for football players.”

He also downplayed the danger, saying rugby looks dangerous if it’s viewed from a football mentality.

“The way rugby is designed — it’s safer,” he said.

The goal isn’t to tackle, just to get the ball.

“There’s no advantage in killing the guy,” he said.

The concussion and injury rate in rugby is lower than in football, according to Mr. Phillipson.

Rugby differs from football in other ways. For example, the game doesn’t stop if someone is tackled.

“It only stops when one of the rules are broken,” he said. “The game favors the man who can get back to their feet the fastest.”

In rugby, the ball can only be passed backward. The game can be played with seven people on each team in a 15-minute game, or 15 people on each team in an 80-minute game.

“It’s almost a game of keep-away,” Mr. Phillipson said.

Spreading the word

He’s eager to introduce rookie rugby to American children 6 to 10 years old and youth rugby to 9- through 13-year-olds.

“There’s a rookie rugby program in Smyrna that we’re looking to join our club,” he said.

The high school rugby team, the Central Delaware Storm, includes players from nine different high schools. His 15-year-old son Tate plays on the team.

He also started the Central Delaware Harlequins, which consist of men 18 and older from the Dover Air Force Base and those who live in the community.

Mr. Phillipson said the ultimate goal is to have anyone, ages 6 and older, be able to join a rugby team. Anyone interested can find more information on the Facebook page Wesley College Rugby Club.

Mr. Phillipson said players who have never played before adjust well and fall in love with the game.

“I’m excited to see young people get excited about something I had a passion for, for years.”

Kristen Griffith is a Dover freelance writer.

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