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Sep 13, 2019

Rugby Gaining Popularity and Participation in Monmouth County

By Tim Morris

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The Monmouth Rugby Club has been fielding competitive teams since 1973.

One non-American-based sport that has taken a firm hold in the area is rugby.

The sport has a long tradition here with the Monmouth Rugby Club, which began back in 1973 and has become one of the best clubs in the Tri-State area, fielding league and tournament championship teams. Now, the sport is reaching the youngest athletes in the area through the Jersey Shore Youth Rugby Association (JSYR). The association’s goals are to promote the sport and its culture to youths in Monmouth County and help them reach their full potential.

Now in its fifth year, the club is taking off.

“The club is steadily growing,” said Michael Flaherty, the club’s head coach who coordinates all the teams and their coaches. He noted that by word of mouth and neighbor-to-neighbor, the number of participants has grown, reaching 50 this year.

There are some good reasons for the sport’s rise in popularity among the young.

“Rugby is unique,” Flaherty said. “Every kid touches the ball. A lineman (similar to a lineman in football) can carry the ball and do the same thing that backs do. We try to maximize the time they touch the ball.”

Other selling points include the fast pace of the game, the continual action and overall culture of rugby. It is known for its sportsmanship and camaraderie, qualities the club likes to emphasize.

Most JSYR players compete in other sports – including lacrosse, soccer and football – and many of them like the idea of being part of something new, Flaherty noted.

The club is also affordable with the cost of $100 per player for an entire season, which is well under the cost of sports like lacrosse or football.

The club is for boys and girls in kindergarten through eighth grade; girls make up 15 percent of the players. The club fields tournament teams in four age groups: the Owls (kindergarten through first grade), Falcons (second and third grades), Hawks (fourth through sixth grades) and Eagles (seventh and eighth grades).

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Photo by Sarah Hall. Jersey Shore Youth Rugby is introducing young athletes in the area to the sport. The teams participate in weekend tournaments.

On any given weekend at tournaments, there can be up to 50 teams and 500 players competing. This year, Jersey Shore Youth Rugby hosted its own tournament at the Fair Haven playing fields.

“[The tournament] was a great moment for the club,” Flaherty said.

The youth rugby club plays flag rugby, which is similar to flag football in that there is no tackling. Pulling off a flag from the belt of a player constitutes a tackle. This allows the young players to learn the sport and to transition to high school where there is tackling. Many high schools throughout New Jersey now have club teams that compete throughout the state, among them Christian Brothers Academy and both Middletown North and South.

With more and more high schools playing rugby and with it catching on at college campuses where many are now fielding men’s and women’s NCAA varsity programs, that is helping increase the popularity of the sport. There is a future in it for the youth.

Rugby expects to get a big boost in 2020 when the sport returns to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

“The nice thing about rugby is that there is a position for every person,” club member Peter Terilli said. “There’s no one size or shape. If you’re willing to work at it, you can play. The more you play, the better you get at it.”

Terilli, like some of the Monmouth players, got into rugby after college. He played football in college and learned that post-college, there weren’t a lot of options for those who liked the physicality of football. But then he discovered rugby, and it fit the criteria he was looking for.

“I needed a contact sport,” he explained. “For me, you can’t play a rugby match without learning something about yourself.”

While many came to rugby as ex-football player, things are changing with more and more players on team having prior experience from playing in college.

Val Rogers, who plays for the women’s team, pointed to the wide variety of athletic backgrounds of the players – football, soccer and field hockey – as well as others who have had no previous athletic experience.

Rogers discovered her passion for rugby in college.

“I didn’t know much about the sport when I started playing, but it looked fun and it was something very different at the time I started playing it in college,” she said.

The club fields Division II and II men’s teams and a Division I women’s squad that compete in the Empire Geographical Union which consists of teams from New Jersey, New York City and Upstate New York.

Rogers pointed out that the Monmouth Rugby wants to take advantage of the sport’s popularity to add new members.

“The sport is gaining popularity,” she said. “There are youth programs growing in the area and country. It’s all about growing the sport, and we are always looking for and welcoming new members.”