Rugby in the 'hood

In some of the toughest neighbourhoods in America, where wearing the wrong colour can get you killed, the oval-shaped ball is offering a passport to a better future. Guy Adams reports from Los Angeles
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Jesse Owens Park is a world away from the playing fields of Rugby School where William Webb-Ellis first picked up the ball and ran with it, in a famous act of teenage rebellion which spawned the sport that now bears his alma mater's name.

Situated in Crenshaw, one of the grittiest neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, the muddy expanse of grass sits a stone's throw away from Slauson Avenue, a busy road that marks an informal dividing line between the territories of the Crips and the Bloods, the city's two most notorious gangs.

On a normal day, as one of the few bits of greenery in a concrete jungle, the park provides a haven to the local homeless community, who put up with the 24-hour din from police sirens and overhead flights into nearby LAX airport.

This week, however, it bore witness to a more orderly scene that would perhaps be better suited to the English Home Counties: 100 teenage boys and girls passing oval-shaped balls backwards and forwards, during the gruelling first training session of their new rugby season.

The players, all aged between 14 and 17, are part of an extraordinary sporting and social experiment. They are among thousands of youngsters, from some of America's most gang-ridden areas, who are being taught to play rugby – in an attempt to turn them away from a life of crime.

Few Americans have heard of the game, but it was introduced to the View Park Charter School, which most of the children attend, by players from Santa Monica Rugby Club, on LA's prosperous Westside, a few years ago.

Today, dozens of schools compete in the Inner City Rugby League, one of several competitions that have sprung up across America to cater for teams made up of children from the country's toughest urban areas.

"At first, a lot of them found the sport confusing, but pretty soon they grew to love it," says Dave Hughes, View Park's English-born PE teacher and rugby coach. "They have tons of ability. Some are just incredible athletes, kids who can run 40 yards in 4.7 seconds, and hurdle as high as their own shoulder."

Learning rugby, which teaches values like hard work and team-building, can help improve the students' self esteem, says Mr Hughes, and prevent them ending up on the wrong side of the tracks. At View Park, its benefits are also being keenly felt in the classroom. "We've got kids here who were totally uncontrollable," he says. "They used to make me want to quit my job every day. Now, you should see what rugby has done for them. It's incredible, like something has just clicked. Suddenly they want to help out, be part of a team, and have a future.

"Some are even getting into universities like Berkeley and UCLA on the back of their potential, because although it's only a minor sport, the coaches of the teams there are able to make sure they get offered a place."

View Park hasn't been alone in advocating the positive values of rugby. At Hyde School, in one of the most disadvantaged suburbs of Washington, coaches of the rugby team made headlines this year when, in defiance of expectations, every one of the 15 players in their team secured a place at university.

In LA's Hawaiian Gardens, an undefeated youth side which won the regional championships is credited with breaking down inter-racial tension, which led to an unprecedented drop in violence between black and Latino high-school students, together with a decline in graffiti in the local area.

Now inner-city rugby is starting to be taken seriously at the very highest levels of the sport. Next month, View Park's team will travel to Twickenham for England's game against Italy, as guests of the RFU.

The trip will form part of a week-long tour for the players – most of whom have never left California, let alone travelled overseas. They will stay at Wellington College, the Berkshire public school, play alongside the first XV and be coached by James Haskell, the England player and Old Wellingtonian.

Watching the children prepare for their trip provides frequent reminders of sport's potential to break down barriers. In normal circumstances, gang allegiance is demonstrated by the colour of clothing they and their contemporaries wear: red for the Bloods, blue for Crips.

But on the field many of View Park's players wear outfits that symbolise their rejection of old divides. Some have one red sock, and one blue. Others wear blue shorts with red socks, or vice versa.

Speaking to them also reminds you how far they have come. "I hope to benefit from the trip by learning better rugby skills, but my community and family will also benefit from it by knowing that something good has come off these streets," says View Park's soft-spoken 15-year-old scrum half, Darius Dawkins. "When I get older, it will hopefully help me become a big-time rugby player and go to a big-time rugby school."

The growth of inner-city rugby comes as American Football, which evolved from it and is now the USA's most watched sport, struggles to distance itself from associations with gang culture.

Players in the NFL, the professional league, were recently banned from celebrating touchdowns and other on-field successes by making gangland gestures.

Rugby also makes solid commercial sense for schools in deprived neighbourhoods, which can struggle to raise sufficient funding to provide the equipment and team of coaches necessary to run an American football programme. View Park's entire league gets by on a small sponsorship deal with Evolution Capital, a finance firm in Santa Monica.

USA Rugby, the sport's governing body, says the number of schools offering the sport, particularly in disadvantaged urban areas, is increasing exponentially "Traditionally, only a tiny number of high schools have played rugby, a lot of them Irish Catholic schools on the East Coast. But that has roughly doubled in the last five years, and now we know of roughly 750 schools," says Mark Griffin, the organisation's youth director. "Plenty of that increase has been happening in the cities."

The USA's national rugby team, which achieved prominence at the last World Cup when it scored what was later voted the try of the tournament against South Africa, is hoping to eventually benefit from the influx of young talent from the inner cities.

Yet the most immediate benefits are on the streets. "Rugby is a full contact extreme sport, and like all extreme sports, it's a release," says Stuart Krohns, the founder of the Inner City Rugby League. "All teenagers have angst, and rugby gives them a sense of emotional balance.

"It's helping these children look at life differently because they are playing a sport that originated overseas, and to start seeing themselves as part of a global community. And in this day and age that has to be a very valuable thing."