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Lambert rugby forms a band of brothers

POSTED: July 12, 2013 8:36 p.m.
Brian Paglia Forsyth County News/

Jas Pyneni (left) tries to out-run Mitchell Brannan (center) and elude the grasp of Cole McCauley (right) during a recent practice. Virtually all of Lambert’s players had no experience playing rugby when the team formed before last school year.

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There’s 32 seconds left on the clock, and Lambert rugby coach Joe Fanning wants to see what the Longhorns are made of.

The White team kicks off, and in a swift execution of rugby fundamentals the ball is caught and passed to Josh Bradley, then Carter Puzey, then Mitchell Brannan, then Cole McCauley, the ball skipping across the field like a stone on a pond. McCauley finds a seam in the White team’s back line and breaks clear, sliding across the try zone just before the clock stops.

"See what happens when you move the ball," Fanning says. "Alright guys, bring it in."

The group of 14 players trudges over to Fanning dripping sweat, some too exhausted to keep their eyelids open after running relentlessly for the last hour and a half. The hands on their hips are seemingly the only thing keeping them upright.

"What was the difference?" Fanning asks.

Before those final 32 seconds, practice had been characterized by errant or desperate passes, the Longhorns’ poor decision-making exacerbated by the heat and brief seven-minute intervals between play that is the norm in rugby sevens, the variant of traditional rugby with half the number of players covering the same amount of field. More than once, Fanning interrupted the action, offended by the inaccurate passes and frequent turnovers. Not good enough if Lambert wanted to win this weekend’s Hotlanta 7s tournament.

And so the team knew the answer.

"Better passing," they said.

"Better passing," Fanning affirmed.

They are still learning. Lambert rugby is only 11 months old, which equals the majority of the player’s experience.

The Longhorns don’t fit the mold of rugby’s big and brawny stereotype. Sure, they have a few ex-football players, but most are ex-soccer players and state math champions, the timid, the pigeon-toed or the home-schooled. Some never played a sport in their life.

"We’ve got athletes, academics – we have all different kinds of kids," Puzey said. "They just all came together and made this amazing brotherhood that just somehow worked."

Looking to connect

Gavin Conley moved to Forsyth County from Chicago two summers ago when his father’s company relocated him to metro Atlanta. A football player for most of his life, Conley joined the team at Lambert. He was on the team, which was different than connecting with the team.

"My freshman year," Conley said, "I was not very comfortable."

Football wasn’t Conley’s favorite sport anyways. Since the seventh grade, he had played rugby, one of the world’s most popular sports dating back to the 15th century and the game that provided the genesis for football.

When he moved to Cumming, Conley joined the Phoenix Rugby Club out of Alpharetta, a championship-caliber team in the Georgia Youth Rugby Association and Georgia Rugby Union comprised of players from high schools all over metro Atlanta. Phoenix is the best. Two years before Conley joined, Phoenix was nationally ranked. Conley helped Phoenix finish runner-up at the Georgia State Games.

But at Lambert, Conley still couldn’t connect.

If Conley couldn’t find a connection at Lambert, he resolved to make one.

He decided to start a rugby team.

"I wanted to make an extracurricular sport that I enjoyed and I thought other people would enjoy," Conley said. "I had classmates who also played rugby or who were interested that I played rugby, and I wanted to show them the sport."

Conley approached Lambert athletic director Drew Ferrer with the idea a month before school started. Ferrer gave him one requirement – get enough players to form a team and the school would make it a letter sport.

Conley promptly hit the campaign trail. He had a booth at Lambert’s round-up days where students get their schedules before the year starts. He made fliers and posters. He approached people armed with YouTube videos of rugby games.

He needed 15 to have a team.

"It was a challenge from the school, like, ‘Can you do this?’" Jayne Conley, Gavin’s mom said. "I think him and I were nervous. You’re not going to find many people who’ve played the sport."

On the first day of practice, 30 showed up.

Creating a clique

Other high schol rugby club teams in the area got word Lambert had started a team. They were encouraging, but pragmatic with the Longhorns.

"They said, ‘Well, you have a good two to three years to pull this off. It’s slow-growing,’" Fanning said. "We busted it out."

Indeed, things fell into place quickly.

Jayne sent out a notice on her neighborhood’s Yahoo! group that Lambert was starting rugby. It was meant to get more boys to come out for the team. Instead, it found Fanning, a New York-native whose father helped start the Metropolitan New York Rugby Union almost 40 years ago, who played rugby for national champion Life University, who’d stuck around Atlanta and kept close to local rugby circles.

Nick Brandon, a freshman, joined the team. For weeks, he came home and told his mom, Susan, a teacher at Sharon Elementary, about rugby. She came to practices, watched matches, saw how her son finally found a connection to Lambert and asked to be the team’s official school sponsor.

They needed uniforms and equipment, so Lambert let them use the athletic department tax ID to help organize fund-raisers or get donations from local businesses. They needed space to play, so they gradually moved from fields at Grand Cascades to sharing space on campus with the soccer and lacrosse teams. This season, they’ll get to play three or four matches at the school stadium.

"Any road-block we’ve had, we’ve just blazed right through it," Jayne Conley said. "Anything we really needed from the school, we got it."

Ultimately, the ruby team needed to know that it could sustain itself, that it wouldn’t fizzle out once Gavin Conley and the rest of Lambert’s rugby pioneers graduated. Instead, the Longhorns had to turn away interested students from other schools, the rare exception to rugby’s creed to never refuse anybody.

"It’s a sport for everyone," Lambert rising junior Stephen Martinez said. "Everything is different about every single one of us. And we still come together to support each other and have each other’s back."

This season, Lambert also comes back with a mission – to avenge their loss to Phoenix in the GYRA championship. The Longhorns return their entire roster, one with Middle Eastern and African American and Hispanic players, former football and baseball players, once-loners and home-schoolers.

"I think rugby’s brought us into a clique," Gavin Conley said. "It’s kind of made us a group of people. I guess we’re just a cool group of guys. I can’t really describe it. But we’re just building."

 

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