Young local athletes in a sport that’s largely unknown in New Orleans are making a big name for themselves in national circles. For the third consecutive year, an all-star team of rugby players representing three New Orleans-area high schools won the nation’s premier competition for their under-20 age group.
The Louisiana Exiles, as the composite team is known, took home the title after winning the Rocky Mountain Challenge, a tournament held in Denver and open to teams from across the country.
The team is coached by Lakeview resident Jerry Malina and this year was composed of players from the Jesuit, Brother Martin and Archbishop Rummel high school rugby programs, along with players from Catholic High School in Baton Rouge and a few college players under age 20. Malina explains that the team’s national success is raising eyebrows across America’s youth rugby community because this region hasn’t traditionally fielded such strong teams.
“The first year we won, people might have said it was a fluke,” Malina says. “When we won again in 2007 we started getting some respect. But with a third win like this, no one can say there isn’t something extraordinary happening here.”
Local high school programs have been officially recognized only since 2000, when the first Louisiana rugby high school championship was held, but they have already begun to turn out experienced players. Last spring, teams from both Archbishop Rummel and Jesuit placed first in different divisions of the USA Rugby South Regional Tournament. Two local players from previous Louisiana Exiles teams – Eric West and Adam Ducoing – were selected to the 25-man roster of the USA Eagles Under-20 team, which represents the nation in competition against teams from around the world.
Rugby club leaders eventually hope to create a pre-high school youth league to introduce the sport to more children and families earlier, and they’re also interested in helping form a charter school to serve low-income families with rugby as a central athletic program.
“It’s a low-cost sport with a big impact that gives kids a good way to work out their aggression,” says Tim Falcon, a Marrero attorney and coach for the Archbishop Shaw team. “The most fulfilling part is you see kids who aren’t into football or they’ve been cut from the team and you’ve given them the gift of rugby, where they might excel and they have a chance to wear their school’s colors and experience all the good things that sports do for young people.”