It’s no secret that it’s a slow time of year for professional sports. With the Falcons resting on Sundays, the Braves starting spring training and the Hawks approaching the All-Star break, a void opened for the city’s newest sports organization to begin.

Rugby ATL began its inaugural season Sunday, as they defeated the Utah Warriors 28-19. The group trailed 16-3 midway through the first half but stormed back, outscoring Utah 25-3 in the last 60 minutes of the 80-minute game to notch their first-ever win.

Fans packed Lupo Family Field at Life University in Marietta, anxiously cheering on their new hometown team. Smells of pork-sausage nachos and Hawaiian barbeque wafted throughout the venue, while young children ran about carrying rugby balls and donning new Rugby ATL gear. After forward Matt Heaton scored the organization’s first-ever “try,” (see glossary below) red and white smoke billowed from the stands, signaling the team’s arrival.

“It was great to get out here finally,” forward Johan Momsen said. “It was amazing to see all the fans come out, and it was an amazing vibe. Sometimes we couldn’t even hear our teammates talk, but it was a great vibe and we’re glad to get the win.”

The game was the culmination of over a year of work, beginning when Major League Rugby announced in September 2018 that an expansion team would come to Atlanta. The next April, President and CEO Robert Taylor named former USA Rugby National Team Defense Coach Scott Lawrence the organization’s head coach and announced the team’s first six players.

Rugby ATL found its home stadium six months later, when in October 2019 it declared a partnership with Life University for the use of Lupo Family Field. The rugby field, which is about 110 yards long and 75 yards wide, usually plays host to the two-time defending national champion Running Eagles of Life University. Rugby ATL cited the history of Life’s rugby team as a significant reason for the venue selection.

As practices began and the team started to take shape, Rugby ATL directed its efforts toward building fan interest. The popular international sport has grown over the past five years in the United States and now includes about 900,000 fans locally, according to a study conducted by Market Strategies International. With that in mind, the team concentrated on attracting casual fans of the sport, while still seeking rabid rugby followers.

“I think as a team, we want to give back to the fans as often as possible,” Momsen said. “That means thanking them afterwards, making it as nice as possible to come out, and putting up a good show as we play. We just have to keep doing that, over and over.”

In addition to growing the diverse fanbase, Rugby ATL is involved in the local community. The organization partnered with Atlanta Youth Rugby (AYR), a rugby youth-development program that reaches over 2,500 students from ages six to 18 to teach them about the game. 

“Obviously, we hope that growing the game is the result (of the partnership with AYR),” Lawrence said. “We want to get kids excited about the game. It’s a fun sport. They get to carry the ball, they get to pass the ball, they get to tackle, they get to do everything. Obviously, we love it and we want to share it.”

Still, for Lawrence, the connection with AYR is about more than just the rules of the game. He believes the partnership can spread Rugby ATL’s goal of personal development to the youth leagues, which focuses on growing the students off the field. 

“Our first core value is to develop people and we feel that youth rugby is a great way to teach work ethic, as well as humility and the other things that are important in our sport,” Lawrence said. “It’s our way to connect with the community but also in general for our own team to live our core values.”

The Rugby ATL season continues Sunday as they travel to New Orleans for the second contest of their inaugural 16-game season.  

A few things to know about rugby

» Rugby matches are 80 minutes long and consist of two separate 40-minute halves. Time and play stop only if there is a foul, the ball goes out of play or a player scores. 

» A rugby field typically is 100 meters (about 110 yards) long by 70 meters (about 75 yards) wide. 

» Rugby teams consist of 15 players. That includes eight forwards, who wear Nos. 1-8, and seven backs, who wear Nos. 9-15. Each number corresponds to a specific position with a designated role.

» Scoring:

-A try occurs when a player on offense touches the ball down in the opponent’s try zone, or the area past the opposing team’s goalposts. A try is worth five points.

-A conversion occurs following a try. A conversion is a placekick that is worth two points and must pass through the goal posts. 

-A penalty kick occurs when the opposing team commits a penalty. The team that was fouled can choose to take a penalty kick, if it feels it was close enough to the opposing team’s goal posts. The team that was fouled is awarded a free kick that is worth 3 points and must pass through the goal posts.

-A drop goal occurs when a player drop-kicks the ball through the goal posts during open play. A drop goal is worth 3 points.

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