Touch rugby, the popular coed sport just about anyone can play

Touch rugby, the popular coed sport just about anyone can play
Chris Woolston, Maxwell Lee, Andy Yi, Sean Balaban, Bob Knoepfel, Eric Yi

When Andy Yi and his wife Debby moved back to Jacksonville from Taiwan in 2014 one of the main things they missed most was the “welcoming” atmosphere of the Touch Rugby Association they had Taipei.

“Actually it was my wife who got me into it,” said Yi, adding that he started playing when he and Debby worked for four and a half years as English teachers in Taiwan. “I used to play flag football and had no interest in touch rugby, but after my wife got me to play a couple of times that was it. Once I tried it, I fell in love with it. It’s my passion now.”

After he discovered the closest Florida clubs were located in Orlando and Palm Coast, Yi realized he had no choice but to create a team in Jacksonville if he wanted to keep playing.

Joining with his brother, Eric, who lives in San Jose, and many of their childhood friends, Yi established the Jax Juggernauts, a coed club which started out as a social and recreational group that practiced twice a week with the goal of fostering a love of the sport in Jacksonville.

“We wanted to recreate the (Touch) community in Jacksonville and share the love of a beautiful sport that anybody with a willingness to learn and improve can play – young or old, fit or fat, boy or girl,” said Yi. “Since the closest teams were in Palm Coast and Orlando, we had no choice but to build from the ground up. It was a challenging experience to share a sport with people who had never even touched a rugby ball, let alone heard of Touch, but it was a highly rewarding experience,” he said.

Touch rugby is a minimum contact form of rugby football similar to ultimate Frisbee or flag football. In touch rugby players do not tackle each other, but instead touch their opponents by using their hands on any part of the body, clothing, or the ball as in the child’s game of tag. Anyone can play, said Yi, noting in Touch Rugby World Cup competition there is a 50 and older division. “The best part of it is the community. Anybody can play from when they are a kid to when they can’t run anymore,” he said.

Maxwell Lee, one of several regulars from the San Marco/San Jose agreed. “This is a good bridge for people not familiar with rugby. It is a safe way to get into the sport, and your wife or your girlfriend can play, too. It’s something you can play at the international level in a coed setting,” he said. Some of the other regular players from the San Marco include Chris Woolston, Bob Knoepfel and Rick Kohn.

Since the inception of Jacksonville Juggernauts two years ago, the team has become the fastest growing Touch Rugby club in Florida, said Yi, adding from the start it had been his ambition to create a club that could compete in the USA Nationals within three years and to eventually have some of his players selected to play in the 2019 Touch World Cup.

In its second year the Juggernauts grew from a social club of friends to an informal USA Federation of International Touch (FIT) affiliated team that includes at least 30 regulars who practice twice a week – on Wednesday evenings near the Town Center and on Saturday mornings at Alexandria Oaks Park in San Marco. With more than 220 members of the touch rugby team’s Facebook page, the team aspires to grow even more, said Yi.

Sponsored by Glocal Network, Realtors Christine and David Herron, Prime Realty and T. Maks International, the Jax Juggernauts regularly compete in the Tri-City Tournament, a bi-monthly competition between Jacksonville, Palm Coast and Orlando.

Most recently they played host to the first Florida Touch Open Tournament in Northeast Florida on Aug. 27, which included teams from Charlotte, North Carolina, Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, and Palm Coast, as well as the Jacksonville Rugby Men’s/Women’s team. USA Touch President O.J. Hawea even flew in from Arizona to lend his support by attending the tournament, said Yi.

But perhaps the most exciting Jax Juggernauts’ achievement is that it will field a coed team of 16 (10 guys and six girls) at the USA Nationals at ESPN World of Sports in Orlando Oct. 13-16, a year ahead of schedule. Playing for Jacksonville will be six women from Yi’s club in Taiwan, three of which are flying in especially for the competition from Taipei, and three who will fly down from Boston, Atlanta and New York, where they attend college, Yi said. Thirty-two teams will compete in the Nationals, including several from outside the United States, specifically Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Australia and England, he said.    

“I’m really excited we’re going. I think it has to do with the community of guys and girls coming together to take our club to the next level and contributing whether it is helping to recruit or set up the field or helping to train new players and make them feel welcome,” said Yi. “It’s kind of my mantra, ‘Touching Lives’.”

In addition to competition, touch rugby provides its’ advocates with an enlarged sense of family. “It’s a strong community,” said Yi. “From our core team we’ve had six babies. When people get pregnant we cook food for them, and we help them move. I often joke that our babies will fill in the last spots on the roster.”

Brian Yost, a member of the Coast Guard who practices regularly with the group, agreed. “My wife Caitlin has more friends from this club than from my work,” he said. “When people get pregnant we do baby showers. It really is like a family.”

The Jacksonville Touch Rugby Club is always looking for new players. For more information, contact Yi at [email protected] or see the Jacksonville Touch Rugby page on Facebook.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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