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Hendricks County’s Best-Kept Secret

Photography Provided

Avon RugbyFun. Fierce. Fit. All describe rugby players. Did you know that a rugby club has existed in Hendricks County for 13 years? Many do not.

“A lot of people don’t know we’ve been around as long as we have,” says Aaron Poland, commissioner of the Avon Rugby Club. “We have a quiet story that continues to grow.”

The Avon Rugby Club was started in 2009 by Joe Ramsbey, a retired Avon police officer. It was initially for high school boys. Three years ago Poland joined the club as a coach and assistant commissioner. Together, Poland and Ramsbey grew the program by adding flag rugby for second-, third- and fourth-graders, as well as starting a coed fifth- and sixth-grade team as well as a seventh- and eighth-grade middle school boys team. 

“Our program expanded pretty rapidly that first year with the youth program,” says Poland, who took over as commissioner in June of 2021 when Ramsbey stepped down. “We had great success and great turnout. The second season we were up and running, then COVID hit.”

Though they suffered some setbacks last season, this year they are back on track and raring to go. According to the commissioner of Rugby Indiana, rugby had the highest retention rating, post-COVID, of any sport. New data reveals that it’s also one of the safest sports, with an injury rate of 10% across the nation. Poland notes that though the physicality is similar to football, the form is more focused in rugby because players don’t wear protective padding. As a result, players learn proper technique when it comes to tackling and ball carrying. 

“There’s a saying in our community that goes, ‘Football is the game for gentleman played by hooligans, and rugby is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen,’” Poland says. “This is the only sport I’ve ever seen where both teams go out on the field and try to murder each other for an hour, but when the game is over the players eat lunch together.” 

Poland maintains that there is a beautiful camaraderie in this sport that extends beyond their club.

“Everybody is family,” Poland says. “The athletes welcome one another. We’ll have a new player come try us out and after practice tell me, ‘This is awesome. I feel like I’ve been here for years.’”

Rivalries still exist, but it’s not cutthroat like in other sports. 

“You don’t have this bitter, hateful rivalry where players end up in fisticuffs in the middle of the field,” Poland says. 

Avon RugbyThey play hard, but players and coaches praise one another afterwards. In addition, coaches, players and parents don’t curse or scream at the officials. Instead, respect and kindness abound. Poland recalls a tournament last spring when they lost to Carmel. 

“We had nine seniors on that team and they were pretty torn up,” Poland says. “When you see a coach from another team come up and console one of your seniors with a hug and a compliment, telling them, ‘You’re going to go on to do great things,’ that tells me everything I need to know about this sport and this culture.”

It’s a culture of caring. If, for instance, a player goes down with an injury, all of the coaches are immediately out on the field checking on them. 

Best of all, everyone has a great time. When players are asked what their favorite part of the game is, Poland says their response is always the same – “It’s fun.” They’re not just referring to the games but the practices as well. 

“Kids have a blast,” Poland says. “Usually the worst part about kids and sports is getting them to go to practice. Here the entire high school team arrives 20 minutes early.”

Poland feels the same. In the game of rugby, all athletes can shine. It’s not about focusing on just one or two superstars on the team. 

“In basketball there are five players,” Poland says. “If you have a LeBron James, you have four spectators. In rugby all 15 play.”

Last season the high school boys team was ranked 34th in the nation at one point. They placed third in the state in both their spring and fall seasons. Furthermore, nine seniors from the team graduated, four of whom received full-ride rugby scholarships. 

“That’s what we’re all about, not only getting these kids introduced to the game but also furthering their academic and rugby career at the next level,” Poland says.

Some of their players have even made it into major-league rugby. For instance, a student who graduated four years ago is now playing in Atlanta on a major-league rugby team.

“We have several players spotlighted nationally who have played all over the country,” Poland says. “This summer some will play on national travel teams.”

The Avon Rugby Club is open to all school systems as well as home and private-school student-athletes. In addition, Avon has the most culturally diverse team in the state.

When Poland was handed the reins of the club, he decided to create the first inclusive unified rugby club, specifically catering to high school and middle school athletes who have either Down syndrome or low-level autism. The first season will be this summer.

“My heart and passion lie in the inclusion piece,” says Poland, who has had conversations with people in New Zealand, South Africa and England, talking to commissioners with Rugby Indiana, USA Rugby and World Rugby. He is also trying to partner with Special Olympics.

Avon Rugby“The culture we have is conducive for that, as rugby is already an inclusive sport,” says Poland, noting that on an international level, the sport is renowned as being inclusive to the LGBTQ+ community as well as accepting of all shapes and sizes. “We get the little kids and the big guys, and everyone in between.”

Rugby is played in 60 minutes, split into two 30-minute halves. Unlike football, it doesn’t stop, so if you’re not in top physical form, it’s just a matter of time until your conditioning improves. 

“A lot of these kids come in less than good shape and by the time the season is over, they’re moving mountains,” Poland says. 

Rugby is a great complementary sport, meaning a lot of football players, soccer players and wrestlers participate in it. 

All coaches and referees are certified and licensed through USA Rugby and World Rugby. While referees are paid, all coaching positions are volunteer based. 

“We do this because we love the sport and love the kids,” Poland says.

Head Coach Steve Nicholson is from Scotland.

“We have an international flair,” Poland says. “Most coaches are coached by people from Europe, South Africa, New Zealand or Australia.” 

All of their varsity athletes have to be certified coaches or officials by the time they graduate so they can help out with other teams.

Though the Avon Rugby Club is looking for sponsors, Poland says he’s more interested in having people come watch the games and/or check out a practice. Poland encourages anyone with kids who want to participate in a practice to try it out. Afterward, coaches are always available to answer questions. 

“We actually look forward to that,” Poland says. “It’s a good day when a random parent walks up to me and says, ‘My kid is interested in playing. Can you answer some questions?’”

If you would like to learn more about the Avon Rugby Club or if you’re interested in playing or coaching, call 317-340-2803 or visit facebook.com/avonrugbyclub.  

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