Rugby walk-on becomes the star
By Tyler Urke
In September 2014, Noah Hanks wasn’t ready to give up on his soccer dreams. He came to Western with aspirations of walking on the Western men’s soccer team.
Unfortunately for Hanks, but fortunately for Western’s rugby program, he didn’t make the cut.
Hanks, now a senior at Western, is the captain of the men’s rugby team in only his fourth year playing the sport. Through hard work and strong leadership qualities, he’s earned the respect of his teammates, coaches and opposing teams.
On move-in day his freshman year, Hanks saw a group of young men tossing a rugby ball around Ridgeway Gamma. He knew how to pitch a rugby ball, so he called for a pass and rifled the ball back.
“They were kind of like, ‘Hey, you know how to do that. Come to practice tomorrow,’” Hanks said. “I was hooked after that.”
Hanks played both soccer and football at Peninsula High School in Gig Harbor, Washington, where he was named to the South Puget Sound League All-League second team as a soccer forward his senior year. The environmental science major at Huxley College of the Environment found rugby to be the best of both worlds.
“I really fell in love with it for the first time touching the ball in the game,” Hanks said. “Once I realized I get to tackle and I get to run with the ball, that’s when I really started enjoying it.”
Hanks said he remembers passing and catching coming easy to him, but that he needed coaching to learn the strategy and tactics of rugby.
“I really fell in love with [rugby] for the first time touching the ball in the game. Once I realized I get to tackle and I get to run with the ball, that’s when I really started enjoying it.”
Hanks got into a game, a rare occurrence for a freshman, on his 19th birthday. He tackled an opposing player above the shoulders, which is a penalty in rugby, because he didn’t know the rules.
Western’s director of rugby, Paul Horne, took Hanks under his wing and showed him the ropes his freshman year. Horne, a Western alumnus with a degree in education, has over 30 years of high-level rugby coaching experience. He was the head coach of the British Columbia Under-19 team for eight years and his team won the national championship each year.
Horne knows a quality captain when he sees one and said Hanks’ positive image challenges players to raise their game to his level of commitment. He said other teams in the league are well aware of Hanks.
“They know when they play Western, they’ve got to deal with Noah,” Horne said.
Hanks said most of the duties of being captain are being a “team mom.” He said he tries to be a mentor for younger players.
“I call it herding cats,” Hanks said.
Senior forward Tripp Marotto agreed with the “team mom” label. Marotto said on the field Hanks is a passionate and emotional leader who leads with his heart and that his attitude on the field gives the team a spark when they need it most.
“He’s the first to tell you when you did good and the first to tell you when you mess up and how to fix it,” Marotto said.
The Vikings demolished their competition last season, outscoring their opponents in non-tournament matches 617-124.
Hanks said the next step for his team is to be ready to compete against tougher opponents. Western qualified for the USA Rugby Sevens Collegiate National Championships, which is May 18-20 in Denver, Colorado.
“We kick the crap out of opponents in our league, then we get to that next tier and it’s hard to compete because you’re not used to competing at that level,” Hanks said. “It’s not a cockiness, it’s just an attitude.”
Hanks said he doesn’t know what life after his last year of rugby at Western will be like. What he does know is that he’s going to make this season count.
“You start thinking, ‘How much sport am I going to have left?’” Hanks said. “And sports are my life. You’ve got to cherish it, man.”