Rocky Mountain High rugby star transfers skills to football field
Kyle Van Tonder does a little bit of everything for the Rocky Mountain High football team.
He plays cornerback and lines up at wide receiver. He punts and he returns kickoffs and punts.
He even blocked an extra point last week against Mountain View. And Grizzlies coach Scott Criner said he’ll work his way into the rotation at running back before the season is over.
But the 5-foot-10, 168-pound junior didn’t hone his varied skillset on the gridiron. It hails from his background in rugby, where the son of South African parents has made a name for himself on the national level.
“The skills are there,” Criner said. “The tackling; catching and running with the ball; knowing how to angle on somebody, how to squeeze a lane; catching a football with your hands — those are all pretty much the same in rugby as they are in football.”
Born in Oakland, Calif., Van Tonder started playing a touch version of rugby as a 5 year old, and he’s steadily risen up the ranks on the national stage. USA Rugby named him a high school All-American last winter, and he traveled with a 17-and-under national team to British Columbia this summer.
He started playing Pop Warner football in California and has played football every year since. But without a doubt, rugby remains his passion.
“My family just grew up around it,” Van Tonder said. “My dad, my mom, every Saturday morning, we’d watch the South African team play. We have a big projector screen, so we put it up on the TV and watch.”
Football and rugby feature plenty of differences. In rugby, forward passes are outlawed, the play is continuous and each team fields 15 players, or seven in the case of new Olympic version.
He’s amazing with what he can do with the ball, how he can kick it when he runs around. He’s a natural tackler. He does a lot of things really naturally.
Scott Criner, Rocky Mountain football coach
But since football evolved from rugby, plenty of the talents Van Tonder learned on the rugby pitch transfer to the gridiron, especially tackling.
“I tackle really well in football because of rugby,” Van Tonder said. “... Obviously, running the ball, you don’t have blockers in rugby. You can’t get hit when you don’t have the ball. But here, you can just get knocked out at any time. It’s a little more risky.”
Transferring to Rocky Mountain in October, Van Tonder proved himself on the junior varsity team before getting called up to varsity during the playoffs. This year, he’s all over the field, including on special teams as a two-headed weapon with returning first-team All-Idaho kicker and punter Jonah Dalmas.
Van Tonder serves as the gunner in the base punt formation, then can motion in as a literal rugby punter in yet another way to exploit the skills he developed growing up.
“We laugh because we’re an option team, and we’ve talked about him being an option quarterback for us because he does that rugby pass or that rugby pitch, and it’s unbelievable how far he can throw a ball when he’s doing that rugby thing,” Criner said. “And he can do it full speed, and he’s really accurate.”
GRIZZ HOLD ON TO TOP TIMBERLINE
Rocky Mountain survived five turnovers and a gruesome injury to starting quarterback Thomas Perkins for a 32-21 road win in its 5A SIC Pod B opener Thursday at Dona Larsen Park.
Carter Kuehl ran for 278 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and backup quarterbacks Tre Page and Conner Croft each ran for a score for the Grizzlies (4-1, 1-0).
The duo traded off filling in for Perkins, who broke his right leg and dislocated his right ankle on a hit on the Rocky Mountain sideline just before halftime, Dave Middleton, Rocky Mountain’s director of football operations, confirmed to the Idaho Statesman late Thursday.
Timberline senior Matt Roberts ran for 89 yards and a pair of TDs, including a 4-yarder in the fourth quarter as the Wolves (1-4, 0-1) rallied. After cutting the lead to 11, Rocky Mountain held on for the win.