The first time Dominic Pezzutti scored a try is etched in his memory.
“It was in my second year of playing, with the Westerville Worms,” said the Westerville native and member of the new PRO Rugby Ohio professional team. “It was a home game and I took a hard line, broke two tackles and scored a try. It was addictive.”
A try is the rugby equivalent of a touchdown in football, although some would argue football is the American equivalent of rugby. The game started in Rugby, England in 1823 and is now played throughout the world.
There’s a new professional league: Pro Rugby. It begins play on Sunday with teams based in Denver, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and PRO Rugby Ohio, which is based in Obetz.
PRO Rugby Ohio team is the only team in the new league that is east of the Mississippi. “Ohio is a really strong rugby market,” said Matt DeBarr of Rugby Ohio. “It’s the fifth largest market based on youth and high school teams.”
In Ohio and throughout the country there are thousands of youth teams, high school teams (such as the Westerville Worms), college teams, and men’s club teams (such as the Columbus Rugby Club).
“I’m confident the people here are really going to enjoy it,” Pezzutti said. “I think (professional) rugby is going to take off here like soccer took off.”
While rugby is popular in the United States, it is much more popular around the world and is on a par with soccer in some parts of the world, such as Australia, New Zealand and England. The rules can be a bit confusing for first-time watchers, but here’s what you need to know: It’s 80 minutes of non-stop action as teams of large, fast and powerful men race up and down the field in carefully orchestrated chaos. The goal is to score a 5-point try, which is followed by a 2-point conversion. A team earns three points for a successful drop kick during play.
There are two versions of rugby: Sevens, in which there are seven players per squad. This is what will be played in the 2016 Olympics, as rugby returns for the first time since 1924. PRO Rugby features the more traditional, 15-players-per team format, which is sometimes called rugby union. The Rugby World Cup has 15-player teams.
PRO Rugby Ohio plays 12 games over 16 weeks. The inaugural is Sunday, April 17 in Denver. The home opened is May 1 at 3 p.m. against San Francisco at Memorial Park in Obetz.
PRO Rugby Ohio features a mix of international players and Americans. Many of the Americans are former football players, such as Beach and teammate Demecus Beach, 28, who grew up in Toledo and played rugby for Life University.
“I played guard and linebacker and defensive line (in high school) and never got to touch the ball,” said Beach, who is 6-feet-1 and 260 pounds, and very fast. “And now, it’s so great to touch the ball … I like to run with it and bang.”
Pezzutti played defensive end at Capital University, where he was a nursing major.
“Big guys always dream about running with the ball,” Pezzutti, 26, who is 6-feet-2 and 240 pounds. He works full-time as a nurse at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and worked an overnight shift the night before a recent practice.
“I got off work and came right here at 7:30 this morning,” he said.
This underscores the need for a professional league in this country. The United States is ranked among the top five teams in the world in sevens, but is 16th in the world in 15s, said Paul Barford, coach of PRO Ohio Rugby.
“This new venture was put together to improve that,” said the native of England, who played for Leicester Tigers, a British professional team. “All the other top countries have professional leagues and academies for youth players, so that, by the time they’re 20, they’ve signed on with a professional team.”
Beach has recently begun to play with the Eagles, the U.S. men’s national team. His goal is to play in the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
“This new league is the best thing for USA Rugby,” Beach said. “We need the best players to be in a professional environment and we haven’t had that, until now … People who come to our games are going to love it. They’re going to enjoy the hits and the continuous action and they’ll see play at a level that’s so high they won’t believe it.”