Barbarians rugby reaches national final for first time

Seth Akpovona, Sam Arndt, Anthony George and Tim Groh are members of the Wichita Barbarians rugby team that has reached a national final in its division.
Seth Akpovona, Sam Arndt, Anthony George and Tim Groh are members of the Wichita Barbarians rugby team that has reached a national final in its division. The Wichita Eagle

A rugby player should never stand alone. On the field, if a player is isolated, it’s considered bad positioning; there should always be support. For the Wichita Barbarians, that togetherness is mimicked off the field, too.

“I have 20 best friends,” said Tony George, a former member of the Navy who is an engineer for Raytheon, and a reserve for the Kansas National Guard. “A lot of people play because of the brotherhood.… It’s almost the same feel as a military unit.”

Ask any member of the Barbarians, former or current, and one reason for playing will reign supreme.

“Camaraderie,” said Brent Zluticky, a former player who’s been around the club for 10 years. “That’s what sets us apart from other clubs that are more athletic, more talented, all of that.”

The club’s fraternity-like brotherhood runs deep, too. With 40 years behind them, support from the alumni was important as Wichita has made a run to the USA Rugby Division III national championship for the first time.

Started two weeks before the club’s trip to San Francisco to compete in the quarterfinals for the fourth time in six years, the GoFundMe campaign garnered more than $4,000 to help with travel costs. Most of that came from alumni since “they know what it was like” when they were part of the club, according to coach Kevin Moloney.

Those funds helped Wichita win back-to-back matches to become Western champions and set up a championship with Tri-City (Midland, Mich.,) on June 14 in Glendale, Colo.

“That’s the driving force I’ve noticed throughout, wherever I’ve been: there’s a sense of community that is unique,” said Moloney, who has been with the team for more than 20 years. “We’ve been knocking on the door for five or six years to get to this point.

“We’ve developed a good culture of how we want to do things, and do things the right way. That’s helped us learn, all together, how to play, and there’s not much thinking that has to go on out on the field anymore.”

The club hasn’t always been as competitive as it is now, though. The transformation from a primarily social club to one that competes on an annual basis only came on strong in the last six years. Over those six years, the club has built a strong core of veteran players that it’s been fortunate to keep, while it’s been able to foster some young talent from high schools in the community.

This season, three of the team’s starters came directly from the club’s high school club team as part a strong recruiting effort in recent years.

“The passing of knowledge from older players to the younger players (is the reason the culture has changed),” said full back Steve Wright, a member the club for eight years and an area administrator for USA Rugby. “They brought in a whole new team emphasis on competing and winning... that has shown the last two or three years.”

Though the focus is on recruiting, and rugby is the nation’s fastest growing sport – according to the Sport and Fitness Industry Association – recruiting still hasn’t been easy, on both the high school and adult levels.

Some high school players in the developmental program move onto Kansas, Kansas State, or another destination school. Most others don’t know about the sport’s presence in Wichita.

“I didn’t even know there was a team, which is one of the biggest problems of the club, is people not knowing that we exist,” said Wright, who moved to the United States from England, then heard about the team through word of mouth at a soccer game.

Some will start playing, then drop it in time. Others, such as rookie flanker Tim Groh, are scared to jump into the uncharted waters when they start Now, at the end of the season, he’s looking forward to the next one.

“It’s a love-hate deal,” Moloney said. “There’s not many people that start, and are on the fence about it. Once they get into a game, that decision becomes pretty clear whether to keep going or not.”

With 18 players in the high school program from across the area, and a championship well within its reach, the Barbarians seem to be on the right path to expanding its brotherhood in a way it hasn’t done before.

“The network is expanding, and more and more people are picking up interest in it,” Zluticky said. “There’s a lot of momentum building in Wichita for rugby.”