Asheville Rugby Club still going strong after 35 years

Asheville Rugby Club was started back in the '80s, and 35 years later, is still going strong. (Photo credit: Frank Holly/Asheville Rugby Club)

The 1980’s were a strange time. Hair bands provided the soundtrack to life after the free-spirit movements of the 60s and 70s, and the United States was seeing changes in all facets.

In Asheville, however, life was simple for Anthony Tirona and a group of his friends.

“We had hair bands and rugby,” he shrugged. “What else could you want?”

It was with this attitude that the inaugural Asheville Rugby Club was formed. Nicknamed “The Iguanas”, Tirona was a member of that first team, but doesn’t consider himself a founding member.

“I was only there to keep my buddies’ team alive,” he explained.

Despite his humor in describing the circumstances of the team’s formation, Tirona insists the group approached the attempt with a full-bore focus. “If we were going to go this far as to put a team together, we were going to put as best a product as we possibly could on the field,” he stated.

Fast forward 35 years and the club is still going strong. On Saturday the team will play the Charlotte Barbarians for the Carolina’s Division III championship.

“This is what we've been practicing for all year, and this is the pinnacle so far of this season,” said head coach Frank Holly, who joined the team in the fall of 2016.

A native of Ireland, Holly comes from a country where rugby is as popular as American football is in the states.

“It's a fast moving, highly technical game but it's a great game to watch,” he described.

Rugby is now the fastest growing sport in the United States. Major League Rugby was founded in 2017 with its first season kicking off this month. Currently, there are seven teams located in Austin, Denver, Houston, New Orleans, San Diego, Seattle, and Salt Lake City.

One of the widespread appeals of the sports is its resemblance to so many other sports with which Americans are already familiar.

“With football you have running backs and fullbacks. We can all play that position in rugby,” explained David Ellis, the team captain who grew up wrestling in middle Tennessee. “It's like wrestling a whole lot in that you have constant contact. There's many mini-wrestling matches wherever you go on the field. You jog somewhere else then you have a mini-wrestling match to protect possession of the ball.”

Former players like Tirona are now affectionately referred to as “the old boys” now, a tradition found anywhere rugby is played.

“If you are able to find something in your life that has that kind of value, you stick with it and you work hard to get to where you are,” Tirona pointed out.

Despite the rough image associated with the sport, relationships are the foundation on which rugby stands. No matter how physical the contest, competing teams regularly meet at local bars after games.

“I guess it's partially due to the brutality that's inherent in the sport,” mused Ellis. “You want somebody to talk about it with afterwards, because if you're not doing it, not many other people are going to understand.”

Rugby is still fighting the same uphill fights that many fledgling sports face in America. Teams come and go, and rare is it for one to have the sustaining power of the Asheville Rugby Club.

“Next season we don't know what will happen, and the guys know that and they've been really focused all season,” said Holly as his team prepared for its first practice of championship week. “They know when a good thing comes together.”

The Iguanas will host the Barbarians at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Carrier Park.

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