First, for those unaware, can you tell readers a bit about the Harlequins – when they were formed, who you play and where fans can see you play?
The Harlequins were formed in 1973 as the University of Pittsburgh Rugby Club. The team was made up predominantly of Law School and Medical School students at the time, and was soon renamed The Pittsburgh Harlequins. The name came from the “London Harlequins”, one of the top men’s teams in the world at the time.
The Harlequins have played in every public park and median strip on the East Coast, but created our own facility 15 years ago just outside the city in Harmarville. Founders Field still ranks as one of the premier rugby specific venues in North America. The deck of our 8,000sf Clubhouse is the best place in the county to enjoy rugby on a Saturday afternoon.
How did you come up with the name for the team?
As I mentioned, the name came from the London Harlequins after many “lesser names” were discarded by the membership.
Where are most players recruited from – do all have rugby backgrounds?
Most players come to the Harlequins from a College program. Others participated in one of our High school programs or picked up the sport overseas.
We have a growing number of athletes picking up the sport after college- when for most athletes their sports have no pathway to continue. Wrestlers, football players, soccer players, basketball players- really any athlete looking to compete at a higher level often find rugby a good fit.
Who are the standout players on the team and league?
Rugby is very truly a team sport, and as such the team succeeds or fails on the collective success of the team and not on the shoulders of any one or two players. However, there are more than a handful of Harlequin players that have recently gained notice by National team coaches, as well as territorial “all-star” teams.
Nick Koon recently was selected to represent the Mid-Atlantic region in a National All-Star competition, as well as being the leading scorer on the Harlequins team that recently made the National Championship in 7-a-side rugby. Nick plays predominantly in the backs, and is arguably one of the fittest men in Rugby.
Luke Titus recently arrived from Australia and is already having a profound impact on the Harlequins game. Luke played professionally in South Africa and New Zealand, and brings a vision of the game a step beyond what most Americans often experience. His quick decision making and ‘read’ of the field keep things moving in an already very quick game. His background in Rugby League (a similar game to Rugby Union, but with closer similarities to American Football) represents the type of faster, standup-defense that international teams are adopting.
Around the league there are standout players, including several that have made the transition from NFL careers and top level NCAA athletes.
Do many of your players move on to international leagues/overseas?
The Harlequins compete using almost 99% local domestic players. As we mature, more and more players are playing at bigger and better clubs. We have had players go on to play with clubs in Europe, Australia and New Zealand- the big Rugby centers of the world. We have had several players selected for National Team camps at several different age-grades; as well as several high school age players winning scholarships to play in college.
We try and annually send several players to play in one of the Southern Hemisphere countries where rugby is the top sport and they are competing in our off-season. The sport is unique in it’s ability to transcend nationalities- it’s like a giant international brotherhood where you can always find some hospitality with just a few calls.
The Harlequins are more than just a club – you are a club that fields teams across various age groups. How does that work and how can inexperienced rugby players get started?
The great part about rugby is that it is an inclusive sport where if you don’t make the first side, you can play in the second or third side game every Saturday. This way you can train as a team and work your way up in a friendly and competitive atmosphere without having to “ride the bench”. We work with high school coaches around the region to help develop the level of rugby in Western PA, including hosting regional and national tournaments where they can play higher levels of competition.
For those unfamiliar with the game of rugby, how would you describe it’s appeal – what would excite people about the game and game experience?
For spectators Rugby is a great game to watch- especially if you sometime grow tired of TV timeouts and long intermissions! Rugby is played in two 40-minute halves with a running clock- so the action rarely stops- you’ll want to grab your refreshments ahead of time so you don’t miss anything.
For players the appeal is many things. It is a tough physical game, and you have to be fit and smart to do well. Many players like that when they take the field all the choices for the next 80 minutes are their own- the coach often sits in the stands for higher-level games. For many crossover athletes, the appeal is that they get to do more than “block that guy”. Everyone plays offense and defense, makes tackles and carries the ball.
How has the team and sport grown locally – and how have you promoted it to those in Pittsburgh?
The team has grown over the years with the introduction of our facility and the hard work of a group of volunteers that love the sport. The Harlequins made the transition from Division 2 to Division 1 in the mid 1990’s, followed by visits to national Championship Round of 8 and 16 in recent years. The sport has grown locally with the expansion of youth and high school programs in the area; trying to keep pace with the huge growth boom of the sport in those age groups nationwide.
In addition, with rugby being reinstated as an Olympic sport in 2012 (the USA was the last team to win a gold medal in the sport) High school and college players right now are the players that will be competing for gold in 2016. Couple that with the growing number of varsity college programs and scholarships out there, this is a good opportunity for athletes to be a big fish in a little pond.
Does having such a diverse and strong ethnic diversity in Pittsburgh help you in that some might be more aware of the sport?
The diversity in Pittsburgh is definitely one of the things that makes the city great- there are a great many opportunities to watch a wide variety of sports in the city beyond the big three; at our facility alone you can watch top level soccer, hurling, lacrosse, Gaelic football and, of course, rugby. There is a huge support base out there for these “underground” sports, and the many ex-patriots in town are definitely a big part of that- we often call them “funny-talkers”, which coming from a Pittsburgher, is fairly ironic.
Any last thoughts for readers?
The Harlequins made our first appearance at a Seven’s National Championship this year, which set the groundwork for a successful Fall Season. That team was made up entirely of local men; competing against all-star teams importing top-level players from around the world. We are always looking for experienced players, as well as athletes looking to compete in a new sport at the highest level. Rugby is fast and athletic, and it can quickly become a passion. We are home almost every weekend in October, and games are very family friendly.