From football roots to rugby championships

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Rugby is just like football, except with a few different rules, a different ball and no shoulder pads or helmets. It is easy to see where some people would think the two sports are the same.

In reality, rugby is about as similar to football as Spanish is to English. There are a few similarities, maybe even some recognizable characters, but the two sports are distinct from each other. Rugby is played on a pitch that can range from 122 to 133 yards long, while football is played on a 100-yard field. There are 15 players for each team on the pitch at once during competition in rugby and 11 players per team on the field in football.

BYU rugby player Will Taylor makes a run during the rugby Varsity Cup in 2012. Photo by Chris Bunker
BYU rugby player Will Taylor makes a run during the rugby Varsity Cup in 2012. Photo by Chris Bunker

So why would two ex-football players join the BYU rugby team despite these difference?

“If I can run around and catch a football I’m sure I can catch a rugby ball,” said BYU rugby player Will Taylor. “I thought about walking on to the football team here, decided I would try walking on to the rugby team instead.”

Taylor thought the transition would be easier than it was. He played football from a young age and was a wide receiver in high school on the varsity football team at Rossview High in Tennessee. Taylor attributed “good route running, strong hands to catch the ball and speed” as the skills required to be a good receiver.

What are the skills needed to play rugby?

“The basic skills are pretty similar to football,” Taylor said. “Catching, running and physicality. As a receiver in football, you have your route and you run it no matter what. In rugby you have to make stuff up. There’s no set play; you have to figure it out as you go. There are a couple set plays, but it’s mostly reactive. You find the hole and hit it.”

Joe Jolissaint, a junior winger from Virginia on the BYU rugby team, also switched from football to rugby upon coming to Provo. Jolissaint played safety on the football team at Towson University in Maryland before transferring to BYU. He, like Taylor, thought about playing football for Coach Bronco Mendenhall but decided to take up rugby instead.

“In football, you get time to assess the defense,” Jolissaint said. “From there, you can decide what you are going to do and where you need to go. In rugby, it is all reactionary; you have to decide in a split second where to be; you don’t have time to think it through like in football.”

Jolissaint grew up watching football and has had the opportunity to play football and rugby at the collegiate level. He had never picked up a rugby ball and never really watched a game until his first practice at BYU.

“It was harder mentally than physically at first, learning the game and being an infant in the game,” Jolissaint said. “Rugby players have to know how to do everything.”

BYU’s rugby team just won its third consecutive national championship May 3.

“It was a good way to go out,” said Taylor, a senior who has played his final game as a Cougar. “Pretty fun, pretty exciting.”

Jolissaint echoed Taylor’s words.

“It is pretty amazing,” Jolissaint said. “I still feel like I am on cloud nine. It is very surreal, especially when others are more excited for me than I am.”

BYU’s program continually produces champions such as Taylor and Jolissaint, despite their unfamiliarity with the sport.

“I still don’t understand all the rules,” Taylor said. “My family will ask me what penalties were called and why, and I just tell them I don’t really know yet. It took me four years to get a decent grasp on it.”

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