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Passion for Rugby Sends Ozark Grad on Adventure to Australia

Benjamin Thomas, who played football at Ozark High School, now plays for the Springfield Rugby Football Club. He spent three months earlier this year playing for a team in Australia.

Benjamin Thomas was going to attend one practice, just to see what this rugby thing was all about, and somehow he ended up in Australia.

Thomas played football at Ozark High School — offensive tackle and defensive end — until he graduated in 2005. In 2010 he joined some friends at a Springfield Rugby Football Club home match at their pitch, just west of Springfield.

“While I was there they convinced me to come out to a practice,” said Thomas. “While I was at practice they said, ‘Hey, we need you to play on Sat­urday.’ I said ‘OK’.

”One match as a spectator and one practice was all it took to get Thomas hooked on rugby. It also laid the groundwork for him to spend three months earlier this year in Australia, playing for the Grafton Rugby Union Club.

The boys from Grafton reached out to Springfield to form a partnership back in 2011, but — like Thomas ending up in Grafton — their players ending up in southwest Missouri was kind of a chance occurrence.

“They contacted the St. Louis Ram­blers to try and stay and play a season with them, but they passed them on to SRFC, who promptly helped them with their arrangements for a place to stay,” said Colin Jones, a member of the board of directors for the Springfield RFC. “The three players stayed with Springfield for a season and now we have a good relationship with the Graf­ton club.”

The experiment went so swimming­ly that Grafton wanted to return the favor. They sent out an invitation to the Springfield club, and Thomas was more than happy to take them up on the offer.

“I didn’t have any professional or personal obligations I needed to attend to for three months,” the industrial and organizational psychology graduate student at Missouri State University said. “Rugby is kind of an international fraternity. They found a place for me to stay, with (Trent Dixon) who came over in 2011, so I knew him. I just lived like a Spartan for a few months, saved some money and went.”

Grafton is a town of 17,501 people, nestled in a bend in the Clarence River. It’s in New South Wales, Australia, just a shade under 400 miles from Sydney. “It’s different than people would imagine it,” Thomas said of his time Down Under. “The people there were honest and good people. They’d give you the shirt off their back and they’re very happy to have what they have. It was almost like living in the ’50s.”

And, much like the cultural differences between the two countries, the rugby is different down under.

“They play a faster style of game (in the Southern Hemisphere),” said Thomas, who also serves on the club’s board of directors. “They’re more focused on trying to increase the tempo. In Northern Hemisphere rugby we slow the ball down a lot and allow the field position to be more important than getting the ball in hand and trying to score.” It was an adjustment that Thomas seemed to take to quickly. He played with Grafton’s top side in several early season matches, and was even named man of the match a few times. As much as the lanky American may have helped the Redmen, his time with Grafton has helped him, too, and not just in minor tricks and techniques.

“When you first start playing, you’re only worried about what’s right in front of your nose, the next task,” the second row, or lock, player said. “When I was over there that became automatic for me. It didn’t really require my conscious attention. I was able to see the space of the field and start to see patterns differently, as far as my position on the field and how it relates to other players and what’s going to happen next.” One member of that group, Chris Jackson, met an American girl, came back to the states and got married. He still plays for Springfield, and even spent time as the club’s head coach. Such is the way these rugby partnerships work.

The Pill Harriers RFC, from Newport, Wales, share a relationship with Springfield that dates back to 1985, two years after the Springfield club was formed. Pill have visited Springfield since then, as recently as 2012, and several players from Springfield have taken the opportunity to travel to Wales to train and compete with their sister club.

Those relationships only strengthen rugby in southwest Missouri.

“Those guys that came over from Grafton were kind and patient, as you would hope a mentor would be,” said Thomas. “They did a good job teaching us, and they’ve always been supportive. They helped more than they could imagine, just in helping inspire confidence in us and helping us feel comfortable playing the game.”

They also opened the Springfield players’ eyes to how rugby is played in other corners of the globe.

“Children start playing when they are 8-10 years old, and there are many clubs playing in league competitions every weekend during their season,” said Jones. “(Our players) get to see different methods of coaching, clubs with three or four teams and intense competition for each playing position. When they come back to Springfield they realize how fit they need to be to play the game at a higher level.”

A higher level in the States, or Down Under, or Wales. Wherever rugby takes them



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