SOUTH SIOUX CITY |  Everything in Ryan Parker's life is a competition.

Whether quizzing friends over trivia questions or besting his running buddies in a contest for the most obscure Metallica song lyric, the Dakota Valley High School senior likes being at the top of his game.

"I work hard," Parker, a standout in the Panthers football football, wrestling and track teams, admitted, "I also like winning."

That's a good attitude to have since Parker also serves as the eighth man on the Siouxland United Wolves High School rugby football team. 

Established in 2009, the Siouxland United Wolves attracts rugby players from Sioux City, South Sioux City and Dakota Valley school districts.

The eighth man -- considered to be the linchpin on any rugby union team -- is someone physically tough enough to take on any challenge while maintaining a steady mental alertness while communicating with his teammates.

"People think rugby is all about aggression," Parker said during a rainy Wednesday night practice session at the Jeffrey C. Dible Soccer Complex. "But rugby's also a sport of strategy."

Wolves coach Vern Helt agrees that rugby requires both brawn and brains.

"You're always thinking ahead," Helt, a veteran player on the Siouxland United Swine adult rugby team, explained. "That's how you stay safe."

Originating in England around 1823, rugby was introduced to the United States in the second half of the 19th century. 

The game is played on a pitch -- or field -- while combining elements of both soccer and American football. The object of rugby is to score either a try (which is similar to a touchdown) or kick the ball through an opponent's goal post.

Unlike football, play is continuous since possession changes frequently.

"During the spring, we play 15 players playing 40-minute halves while, in the fall, we play seven players playing seven-minute halves," Helt said. "That keeps the game moving."

Rugby is considered a contact sport, not a collision sport, because players only tackle the guy carrying the ball. Since players aren't outfitted with helmets or heavy padding, they tackle only to take a ball carrier down and not to inflict bodily harm. 

"While an athlete can get hurt participating in any sport," Helt said, "I say rugby injuries are more comparable to basketball than football."

On the other hand, Bishop Heelan Catholic High School senior Luke Howley said rugby is similar to wrestling since both sports are dependent on upper body strength.

"That's how I first got into rugby," he said. "I tried out for it right after wrestling season ended." 

As a flanker for Wolves, it's Howley's job to tackle the opposition and try to steal the ball.

"Yeah, I can work out some of my aggression in rugby," he said. "But that's OK."

Despite that, Howley also pays close attention to the advice his mom gave him.

"Mom always told me to never be in last place," he noted. "Mom said I don't have to be in first place all the time. But when a person works hard and tries his best, he'll never come in last place."

While a flanker needs to be able to tackle, an inside center must possess good kicking skills as well as the ability to read the play and direct the attack.

Cole Eaton, the Wolves' inside center, is a second-generation rugby player.

"My dad plays rugby and so did my brother," the West High School senior explained. "I've always been around the sport."

A self-admitted adrenaline junkie, Eaton said he's happiest when engaged in any physical activity.

"To be honest, I get a headache whenever I sit too still," he said with a chuckle.

As a heavy wind and a steady rain came down during the Wolves' practice session, Parker acknowledged rugby could be a tough sport at times but there's more to the sport than scrums, tackles and physical contact.

"They use to say rugby was the hooligan game played by gentlemen and that's true," he said. "If you you hit somebody hard, you can talk to him afterwards and know you're still friends."

"This is the great thing about rugby," Parker continued. "It's aggressive but all of that aggression stay on the field." 


Food and Lifestyles reporter

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