The U.S. is getting on the bandwagon of one of the world’s most popular sports, and it’s exploding here in Eastern Massachusetts, most recently in Milton.
Rugby, a sport with a reputation for gruff brutality, has long been popular in American colleges, but has recently seen a rash of growth in high schools and even youth levels. It is the nation’s second fastest growing team sport, according to a 2012 report by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, with participation numbers growing 30 percent since 2008. (Lacrosse was up 37.7 percent.) Over 1 million Americans are playing organized rugby.
Milton High School’s team, officially the Milton High School Rugby Football Club, or MHSRFC, has doubled in size each year since its inception in 2011, with 52 team members on the 2013 spring squad, its second year as a varsity sport.
The team has also doubled its win totals, with two wins in its inaugural year, four last season and six so far in 2013, with another division game and the championship still to come. Milton currently sits atop the Eastern Massachusetts Division 2 standings with a 4-1 record, with hopes of bringing home the cup from the May 25 championships in Fort Devens, Mass., and they have beaten two teams from the division above them during the season. Coach Joe Dolan expects to move up to Division 1A next spring, where competition will be tougher.
On May 10, Milton hosted over 100 rugby players in an inaugural, four-team “Sevens” tournament, which means that each team has seven players on the field, as opposed to the regular 15 per side. This pared-down, faster and wide-open version of the game has played a large role in the sport’s growth, with rugby sevens entered as an Olympic sport for the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, and a world tour of sevens teams from the world’s best rugby nations frequently televised on the NBC Sports network. (Believe it or not, the U.S. is the reigning Olympic rugby champion, having won the gold medal the last time the game was played in 1924.)
Dolan, a resident who teaches at Pierce Middle School, is a long-time member of the Boston Rugby Club and coached rugby for 20 years at Brookline High School before coming on board to get Milton’s program going. He hopes to develop a town program of touch rugby (called Rookie Rugby for those under 14) over the next five years. He may even have a bit of a head start, as Gaelic football, a cross between rugby and soccer, has had a youth league in town since 2009. Men’s club rugby teams in the area have established youth programs in the past few years, such as the Boston Irish Wolfhounds in Canton and the Mystic River Rugby Club in Malden.
And it’s not just for boys. While there are 19 boys varsity teams in eastern Massachusetts, six high schools have girls squads as well, and Milton has had a few girls on their team as well. “Once they get knocked down by the girls, that whole gender thing disappears,” said Dolan.
In addition to the fun of the game itself, there is a set of ethics surrounding the sport that is an attractive alternative to many conventional American sports. Inclusivity is important, as is leaving any animosity on the field, say the players. After beating each other up in competition, teams share food and conversation with each other after every match, a tradition deeply ingrained in the game.
Players also feel the sport opens doors for them. “Everywhere you go in the world there is a rugby club for a player to join,” said junior Tim O’Connor. “Coach Dolan always tells us that if we ever go to a foreign country to find and join a club as soon as possible, as it is an easy way to get to meet new people. Every team is like a family.”
“No matter where you go in the world playing rugby you will always be treated with respect by your opponents,” said senior Captain Joe Kennedy, who traveled with O’Connor to Bermuda over spring break on a trip with the Boston Rugby Club’s Under-19 team.
Concluded O’Connor, “We went down [to Bermuda] and won both of our matches … and had a great time. This is all at the age of 16, I can’t wait to see where this game will take me.”
For information on Massachusetts high school rugby visit www.myrugby.org, and to go see some men’s club teams, visit www.nerfu.org.