News sports

‘An absolute beauty to watch’

Birmingham Rugby players relish competition, relationships

By Gary Lloyd

BIRMINGHAM – Birmingham has a lot going its way right now.

The Birmingham Bulls hockey team is back and is one of the better teams in the Southern Professional Hockey League. The Birmingham Iron, part of the Alliance of American Football, kicks off its inaugural season in February. The Birmingham Legion, an expansion member of the United Soccer League, will begin play in March. An NBA G League affiliate of the New Orleans Pelicans will begin play in Birmingham in 2020. UAB football is coming off the most memorable season in program history.

But there is another team, one that has been around since 1967, looking for some headlines of its own. The Birmingham Vulcans Rugby Club was introduced to the city during a rugby demonstration that was put on during halftime of the New York Jets exhibition game at Legion Field, and it helped recruit the first Birmingham Rugby members.

Allen Kipp has been involved with the club since 1992, sans a few years when he played for Huntsville, and he is now the team’s coach.

The 2018 True South champions (submitted photo)

“There’s a saying in the rugby community worldwide, ‘There are those that play rugby and then there are rugby players.’ I’d have to be lumped into the latter as rugby has consumed my life since 1989,” Kipp says. “I met my wife by playing rugby with her brother in college. I wouldn’t have her or my children if I hadn’t decided to play rugby. Almost every close friend I have is through rugby, and I’ve been fortunate to play rugby in several other countries and have friends from all over the world because of this sport. I’ve turned down jobs because they would interfere with rugby. It’s just such a huge part of who I am.”

Rugby is unlike mainstream sports. You can play as long as you want. The visiting team is treated to a meal and drinks after matches.

“It’s expected in rugby,” Kipp says. “I regularly encourage my guys to hang out with each other away from the pitch and get to know each other.”

Rugby is under the radar in Birmingham. After all, the Crimson Tide and Tigers reside within this state. Kipp believes that rugby has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, and that people’s impressions of rugby in college including drunken parties is a misnomer.

“What they don’t see are the hours upon hours of preparation that goes into being successful, whether at the pitch working on skills individually or at practice with the team, in the gym or on the road or simply studying film,” he says. “They don’t see the diets most of these guys are on or the ice baths they take after a match. While we don’t get paid and can’t be called professionals, that doesn’t mean we can’t take a professional approach to our sport.”

Rugby is not the day job of Birmingham players. For most, it costs them to play. They pay for travel expenses, lodging, registrations, and continuing education. Kipp spends 10 to 25 hours per week on rugby, which breaks down to two two-hour training sessions, four to 10 hours of watching film, 2.5 hours of match time, and four to 12 hours of travel time.

“I often travel to college matches and try to recruit new players, or network to help find employment for potential recruits who are about to graduate or move to Birmingham,” Kipp says.

A match from 1990 between Alabama and Birmingham (submitted photo)

His family has turned down invitations from friends and colleagues. His kids have attended functions without their dad. It’s all for the passion he has for rugby.

“If it weren’t for a very understanding family, I couldn’t do what I do,” he says.

Nick Gold, a club member for the last three years, says rugby is a great stress reliever and a way to meet friends.

“The relationships on this team are some of the tightest bonds from the rookies to the gray beards,” Gold says. “Rugby players, like everyone else, stick to their age group but the only difference is that rugby is an ever-growing game and requires the young to interact with the old. The way I see relationships developed on these teams is passing down experience, everyone has a different view on the way the game or life is played. Then again, a lot of relationships are an ‘Iron sharpens iron’ relationship. Some of my closest friends on the team are my best competition on the field.”

Gold spends at least six hours per week on skills training, practice, and game day.

The club does more than practice and play. It is active in the community. Kipp says one former player recently died from suicide, so the club teamed up with the Alabama Suicide Prevention and Resources Coalition and Cahaba Brewery to host a charity cornhole tournament.

“We were able to raise a little money for them and increase awareness at the same time, so I think we’ll probably look at doing that yearly,” Kipp says.

Allen Kipp coaches as one of his sons looks on (submitted photo)

Several years ago, one player tore a ligament in his knee, preventing him from working around the house. He was married with young children. The club organized a schedule to do the yardwork required at his home. Another longtime club member’s child developed cancer. A charity auction organized by the rugby club helped offset some of the costs the family incurred.

“They had just bought a house and it needed some work to be livable,” Kipp says. “A group of us, along with some of our wives and girlfriends, organized going over and sanitizing the entire house, we finished putting baseboards and other trim in.”

The team also hosts a “second Sunday touch” practice, which allows the youth and their parents to join the club for touch rugby “so that we can provide an outside activity and introduce rugby to the next generation,” Gold says.

All the time invested in the game paid off in 2018, when the Birmingham Rugby Club won the True South Championship for the first time after being runner-up five straight years.

“It takes years to get all the pieces in place to be an effective side, and just when you think you have achieved it, you lose a player through retirement or job relocation,” Kipp says. “It seems as though we are always in a rebuilding phase. Last year saw the reward of several previous years’ work and we were able to add critical pieces.”

Says Gold, “Also, because we were a somewhat young team and many pieces came together to make us a championship team. It wasn’t just one player taking us all the way.”

The team lost its bid for a national championship in the Round of 32 against the Atlanta Renegades.

“I’d really like to have hit that round at full strength and seen what we were able to accomplish with a healthy side,” Kipp says. “Fortunately, there weren’t too many lows in 2018. We lost three matches the entire year, had no major injuries, developed some real depth in a lot of positions, and deepened our resolve to improve. 2019 will be more difficult for sure. Everyone wants to knock off the one at the top, and we have a lot of work to do to ensure we stay on top.”

This year, the spring schedule includes matches in Birmingham on Jan. 26, March 16, March 23, and March 30.

Gold cautions that rugby is not a sport meant to beat people up.

“Rugby is an amazing game and an absolute beauty to watch,” he says. “Rugby is one of the biggest sports in the world and it’s the fastest growing sport in the U.S. I would say to anyone, no matter your size or athletic background, give rugby a try and see if you don’t fall in love the first practice.”

Anyone can join. Practices in Birmingham are Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. at Ramsay Park. The club’s Facebook page advises, quite simply, to bring cleats.

“No experience is necessary, just the willingness to have fun and to push yourself.”

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