The Runner Sports

An Exposé On American Rugby: Boston Irish Wolfhounds HS Rugby Clinic

Packed deep into the wooded area of Canton, MA (an offshoot suburb 30 minutes south of metro Boston) on a sun-spackled pitch, the game of rugby took a giant leap forward in the United States. But if a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?

This last week (June 26-30), the Boston Irish Wolfhounds hosted their inaugural high school rugby camp. They didn’t just dip their toes in to experiment with the temperature -they blitzed right in for a cannonball, the only proper way to enter a pool; bringing in Rugby Consulting USA‘s and former Connacht Academy player Tadhg Leader (fresh off a DIII USA Club Rugby Championship), USA 7s star Carlin Isles, and USA U20s captain Malon Al-Jiboori among a rotation of college coaches to guide their flock through the week, including regular face Carrick Pell, head coach of the Babson College men’s rugby team –who also lent pads and gear to the camp for the week.

There are bigger, more highly participated camps even within the area (Dartmouth just concluded their camp with about 400 participants albeit running in its fourth year), but few offer the type of exposure to top-level talent such as a pair of USA Eagles.

“They have the experience, it’s a lot better when people have the experience, to be coached from them. Like it’s a lot easier, they know the game better than people that don’t play,” opined 14-year-old scrum half Dylan Clifford.

“Great group of young men. [Being] able to share you know my knowledge to them, they’ve taken it very well, take it in and use it. It’s been a great time, I’m able to enjoy myself,” said USA 7s star Carlin Isles.

It almost didn’t happen, too.

Two weeks out, the numbers signed up didn’t quite meet the expectations and concern grew around the idea and whether they’d have to cancel the camp. But a rally of signups doubled the numbers in the final weeks and the camp went on as planned.

You likely wouldn’t have guessed you’d see the true essence of rugby in this country from top to bottom at a first-year camp, let alone out in the pocket of Canton, MA, but that’s exactly what you saw. Raw kids with limited exposure to the game, teenagers with a few years of playing time, club rugby representatives, collegiate coaches, self-made coaching successes, and international stars…all on the same pitch, working to improve the game. Let’s not forget the all important rugby media either.

As the rugby attention has shifted to the western states (no team in the proposed MLR is more east than New Orleans and Ohio featured the furthest east team in the now all but defunct PRO), nestled deep in the woods of eastern Massachusetts we see first hand a hotbed of rugby very much still remains in the northeast.

Throughout the week, the kids (aged 12-18) got hands-on experience with the skills and fundamentals of the sport. Working on passing, kicking, tackling, rucking, scrummaging, positional specific talents, and even a bit of conditioning, the quality of play improved with each passing rep.

Between sessions, they were exposed to the knowledge of the coaches for every aspect of the game, including an in-depth talk about the pipeline of playing for USA Rugby with none other than U20 captain and 7s come-upper, Malon Al-Jiboori. Having a handful of players at their expense who have walked through many different levels of the sport, the knowledge imparted about a valuable as the winning lotto numbers.

On day four (Thursday), they were even bared to the Yaka Yard, a conditioning drill run by the USA 7s squads. It consisted of a rotating gauntlet of cardio and drills that lasted for some 20 minutes and left nearly every participant keeled over.

“It sucked. It was terrible. I’ve never actually been worked that hard ever. It feels good, though, feels like a sense of pride you kinda get from doing all that work,” coined 14-year-old Aidan Finnegan on the Yaka Yard. “I feel like I worked to my best… it feels really good to be able to do this with the Hounds.”

From there they jumped right into passing and handling drills, focusing on digging through that exhaustion to maintain those core fundamentals.

“That’s pretty tough, most of the kids stuck through it. It’s just a mental and physical toughness you just gotta get past it,” coach Malon Al-Jiboori had to say about the kids and the Yaka Yard. “That’s important… when you’re tired and just drained your passing and your skills tend to decrease. So training that, learning to fight that is good for the game.”

Rugby is on the rise, and in fact, according to a few metrics, the fastest growing sport here in the United States. And the best way to examine the game’s longevity is to look at youth participation. The growth and development of the sport all starts with the young generation. Those that will spend years honing their skills and understanding of the game and carry the sport both socially and professionally to the new beyond.

USA Rugby chief executive Dan Payne calls this younger generation his sport’s “401K retirement vehicle” — a major investment for future success. “We need to invest today to be able to get the rewards 10, 15 years from now,” he told CNN’s World Rugby show in Las Vegas during this year’s USA Rugby Sevens event. “In the US it’s still a start-up sport relative to some of the more mature sports. That gives us a lot of opportunity because our numbers are growing, whereas a lot of the other sports that would considered mature sports in the United States are actually having membership decrease, so that’s exciting.”

All that said, rugby hasn’t quite captivated the masses into flocking to games, yet. USA Rugby failed to sell out Red Bull Arena (25,000 capacity) when they clashed with Ireland just a month ago. The USA Rugby club organization is a difficult path to navigate for a novice. The inconsistent schedules across the geographical unions, the slow to update scores and information make it a hard sport to digest in a casual manner. Hopefully, the likes of a continued effort to professionalize the sport in the US will only make those just discovering the sport all the more able to track down the games.

“It’s exposure and it’s happening. We’re seeing it more and more,” said Brown University coach David LaFlamme on growing the game even further. “If USA were finally able to get a consistent professional league, that’ll make wonders for where we go as a country… I know the rest of the world, everywhere I go, they’re always looking at USA as the sleeping giants when it comes to rugby. We have the athletic gene pool, it’s just a matter of now getting the right environment to get the kids developed. It’s things like these camps.”

While PRO enamored, it ultimately underdelivered. A group of existing clubs hope to trudge on with Major League Rugby and give the pipeline of playing the game a home base here in the United States.

It’s a sport that has a lot of opportunity, and one that will win more and more young kids over with a professional league to set their eyes on. As the kids learned this week, there’s an absurd amount of possibility to continue playing beyond high school, very unlike the narrowing talent pools of the likes of football and basketball. Just 6% of high school seniors go on to play college football, where just 1.7% of that make it to the NFL, which equates to just .08% of high school players going pro.

More and more colleges are adding rugby at a varsity level to their sports programs, with a number of schools even offering full scholarships.

“This [camp] has definitely helped me see there are more possibilities and that it’s bigger than I thought it was,” said 18-year-old Teddy Curtis.

Such opportunity awaits at a small but rugby proud and great academic institute in Babson College. Coach Carrick was onsight much of the week, and brought a level of energy found seldom outside of Energizer commercials.

“It’s immeasurable, you really can’t put a price tag on the exposure to the young kids. Most of these kids probably, I would imagine, didn’t even know that Babson existed, or if it did that it even had a rugby program,” Carrick Pell said of the chance these types of camps provide small colleges to do some rare recruiting.

This week’s camp was an opportunity made possible by the hard work and commitment by the Boston Irish Wolfhounds. Founded in 1989 playing out of the American Rugby Premiership and Atlantic North Division I, the Wolfhounds use the Irish Cultural Centre as their base of operations. A lovely facility that features a full-time rugby pitch among two other practice fields, it also hosts a myriad of other sports including Gaelic Football. The clubhouse features a library, event space, as well as a tavern. The Hounds are committed to every level of the sport.

“This is our first time running this camp, and as president of the rugby club, I’m just really delighted with the effort that Padraic McDonough (Wolfhounds Director of Field Operations), Tadhg Leader and the rest of his crew did,” said Wolfhounds President Philip O’Dwyer. “USA Rugby it’s all now about skills. The past few years we’re out there doing our stuff but now we have to get it to the next level, and the next level is skills. And that’s why we’re starting camps like this, to really get the skills to our players at a young age. For us at the Boston Irish Wolfhounds, we want rugby across the country and across the region to improve.”

These clubs bear much of the weight of the game in the US. The international side keeps it sexy, but the clubs put in the grassroots effort to grow the player/viewer base. They don’t get the love they deserve, filled with people truly passionate about the game. So make an effort to get a carpool or whatever needed to get out and support your local clubs!

By the time the kids broke into their formulated teams to play some actual games on Friday, the level of improvement was just profound.

“Major success… turned out to be a major success, 35 kids, they left every day smiling, so I mean that’s a pretty big achievement. We were ecstatic, we’re looking forward to doing it next year,” said man in charge Tadhg Leader. “Youth rugby is the biggest thing. To develop the kids, and develop youth rugby, that’s how the high school, collegiate, national team gets better.”

If this group of kids is any sign of the future of this sport in this country, the game appears to be in good hands. Exposed early, this generation of players knows the basics and are progressing beyond that; they actively play, watch, and participate in the games where availabe, and like sponges, just soak up everything before them, improving at every turn.

So as if the answer wasn’t abundantly clear, that tree that fell in the woods, of Canton, MA to be specific, didn’t just make a sound, but a thunderous roar that announced rugby is here, it has been for some time, but that there’s a group serious about furthering the game, and the next generation of players are all ears.

 

 

I would like to thank the Boston Irish Wolfhounds and Rugby Consulting USA for letting me hang around all week and soak up what they were doing with this camp. Here at The Runner Sports, we’re committed to growing the game of rugby and integrating it into the mainstream core sports digested here in America.

If you’re interested in playing rugby, whether it’s youth or adult club, be sure to reach out to your local club and inquire about the available opportunity.

The Boston Irish Wolfhounds can be contacted here. They offer youth programs, old boys sqaud (Greyhounds), rugby 7s, and an attractive playing opportunity with a USA club rugby sanctioned 15s side. It’s never too late to fall in love with the game, whether as a player or fan.

 

For more pictures of the camp visit our TRS picture page.

Tyler Arnold

Tyler Arnold

I am the founder and editor-in-chief of The Runner Sports. I've been an avid sports fan since I was a child and have turned that love into a profession. I will watch, comment, and break down anything I can get my hands on, from football to white water rafting in the Olympics. Your visit means a lot to me, so thank you for your readership.
Tyler Arnold