The Rise of Rugby

One of the fastest growing sports in America sets down roots on the South Shore

By Ross MacDonald | Photography by Derrick Zellmann

Fall in New England is commonly associated with cider doughnuts, homecoming football games and Patriots Nation, but for a growing band of brothers and sisters, it’s a time of year when friendships are being formed on a different sort of training field, between try line and touch line, in a game that many Americans know very little about—rugby.

A Quick History of the Game

Members of Boston Rugby Football Club practice at Union Point Sports Complex in Weymouth. The facility features a world-class regulation pitch, one of only six that exists in the United States.

Rugby football was established in the middle of the 19th century. According to folklore, the game originated at a private school in England called Rugby School during one of the massive football (soccer) games of the period. A young chap named William Webb Ellis is said to have picked up a ball, run with it over the goal line and grounded it. He stood up and shouted “Goal!” to which an observing master said, “No, but a damn good try.” Running with the ball subsequently became increasingly popular and in 1871 The Rugby Football Union was founded in London.

The most widely played format of rugby is 15-a-side (15 players per team), which is played over 80 minutes and is divided into two halves. There is also a faster game called seven-a-side, which lasts 14-30 minutes and is also split into two halves. There are no timeouts, no rolling substitutions, the game does not stop and restart after every tackle and, most notably, nobody wears heavy pads or helmets.

Prior to 1995, rugby was an amateur sport at domestic and international levels. While it is still largely an amateur sport, it has made significant strides in recent years. The top European sides (teams) meet every year at the Six Nations Championship and most major rugby playing nations tour other nations every year. There are several major international tournaments that often involve teams from the United States: The Rugby World Cup, played every four years, the Rugby Sevens World Cup and the Rugby World Sevens Series. In 2016, rugby made a valiant return to the summer Olympics (where it is played in Sevens format).

The Home Turf

The South Shore has become a rugby hotbed. There are three senior clubs, numerous high school programs, including teams from Hingham, Weymouth, Hanover, Marshfield and Quincy, and youth programs like the South Shore Sharks. Recently, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) officially recognized rugby as a varsity sport, which has contributed to its monumental growth at the high school level.

While it is still largely an amateur sport, rugby has made significant strides in recent years. The passion of players runs deep, demanding individual determination and communal cohesiveness to succeed.

A number of senior clubs, including Boston Rugby Football Club (BRFC) and South Shore Anchors Rugby Football Club (SSARFC) have been running youth development programs for several years, giving the opportunity to BRFC youth players like Tim O’Connor of Milton and Nick Dodge of Braintree a chance to develop their games outside of school. O’Connor and Dodge agree they’ve found not only a sport they love but also outstanding friendships.  

When BRFC announced last year that the team would be relocating its home base to the Union Point Athletic Center in Weymouth, it was big news. The new $25 million facility has much to boast about, including a world-class regulation rugby pitch, one of only six that exist in the United States.

“At last we have a place to put down roots,” says Bill Good, president of Massachusetts Youth Rugby and a longtime BRFC member. A sense of excitement runs throughout the club. “The move’s been great, and we’ve already seen the changes,” says former elite BRFC player and youth coach Sean Treacy. “We had a lot of players from the [South Shore] area, but we’ve yet to see the full impact of our move. The goal is to retain youth players and work them up to the senior level, and we’ve already started that with the former youth players who started out with us six years ago.”  In time, the club hopes to be, as player Jarrod Dyke puts it, “back on top.”

Boston isn’t the only team with high expectations. The South Shore Anchors have ambitious plans for both the men’s and women’s teams. “We are one club,” says SSARF President Rory Barratt, who emphasizes that it’s not just about winning championships; it’s also about player conduct and camaraderie.

“It’s a sport for all shapes and sizes and every player contributes,” says Good. “The culture of rugby is unique. It’s a community.”

Players Kelly Kryzak and Vickki Thomas, members of the Anchors’ women’s team, The Sirens, echo this sentiment. “There’s so much about the game to love,” says Thomas. “The physical competition on the field and then being able to share a laugh with your opponent off the field.”

It was that sense of community that inspired BRFC member Jerry Shafir to invest in the Union Point development. For Shafir, it was a chance to give back to the game and to help his beloved club find a home.

Whether amateur or professional, the passion of rugby players runs deep. “Rugby, like life, demands both individual determination and communal cohesiveness to succeed,” says Drew Hanson, an enthusiastic “rugger” and minister at First Presbyterian Church in Quincy. “That combination and the intensity that rugby inspires are good for the soul.”

Watch and Learn

Both Boston Rugby Football Club and the South Shore Anchors Rugby Football Club will have home games at Union Point in Weymouth this fall. For more information, visit brfc.org, ssrugby.com or unionpointma.com.

Glossary

Rugby has both professional and amateur leagues across the world. There are two versions of the game: Fifteen-a-side and the shorter, seven-a-side. Fifteen-a-side lasts 80 minutes, with two halves. Seven-a-side can last between 14-30 minutes, with two halves. Note: Rugby does not stop and start like football.

Try: Rugby’s version of a touchdown. When a ball is grounded over the opposition’s try line. Worth five points.

Try line: Goal line

Touch line: Sideline

Pitch: The playing field

Drop Goal: The ball is dropped by the player, hits the ground and is kicked between the sticks. Worth 3 points.

Sticks: Goal posts

Penalty Kick: Can be awarded for a whole array of offences

Ruck: Players compete for the ball while it’s on the ground. It can get rather messy.

Maul: A maul occurs when the ball carrier is held by one or more opponents and one or more of the ball carrier’s teammates holds on (binds) as well, often appearing like a mini-mosh pit on the pitch. The side that made the tackle will win the ball and put it into a scrum, when again the forwards can contest in an oddly shaped contortion.

Scrum: The opposing forwards will occasionally have to lock down into a strange shaped tortoise. The reason for a scrum and who puts it in is determined often by when a ball is dropped and knocked on or passed forward.

Line Out: If the ball goes into touch, then, depending on who put it into touch, a line out will take place. The ball is thrown in and the opposing players will compete for the ball in two facing lines.

Forwards: A forward traditionally was a larger player who would be used for the close quarter work. They are often seen by the backs as big gorillas who are too selfish to get the ball out to them. There are 8 forwards in 15-a-side.

Backs: Traditionally the slimmer and quicker members of the team. They are often seen by the forwards as rather flighty characters who take most of the glory and do none of the work. There are seven backs in 15-a-side.

Rugger: An enthusiastic rugby player or supporter. Most rugby folks in the USA are ruggers, as they are passionate advocates of the game.

 

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