In 2016, rugby will be part of the Summer Olympics for the first time in 92 years. Colleges and universities in America are slowly offering more scholarships for the sport. In New England, it is undergoing an explosion in popularity among all ages.
“Rugby has a stronghold in Boston at the moment,” said Eoghan Cahill of the Boston Irish Wolfhounds, one of the premier rugby clubs in the country.
It makes sense. Many New England families trace lineage to the British Isles, where the game began to flourish in the 1800s. It is wildly popular at colleges and universities, of which this region has plenty. The breeding grounds have reached area high schools, which have tripled their number of teams in the past decade, according to Cahill.
Since the reintroduction to the Summer Games, in particular, the appeal has blossomed.
“With the addition of rugby in the Olympics, what we’re seeing is more and more colleges are putting emphasis into their programs,” said Greg Bruce, a coach at Northeastern and the founder of the program at Belmont High School. “Scholarships are going to start to become available and from there schools are going to want their kids representing the U.S. national team in the Olympics. Scholarships are available. Olympic glory is available. What’s next?”
Without scholarships, money or an avenue for glory, many top athletes have previously shied from rugby. Bruce is seeing that change at both the high school and college level.
Locally, supporters are emphasizing what already makes the game special for all ages. First, it is cheap. It is cleaner and more controlled than most think; while the NFL is embroiled in concussion controversies, such maladies are rare in rugby. There’s also camaraderie not only within clubs but from one to the other. After Belmont High games, the sides share pizza. With the Wolfhounds, it might be a pint. Also, if you need help around the house, just ask your flanker or your wing.
“You can find a painter, a carpenter,” said Owen Collins, an Abington native who played at B.C. High, overseas and for several years now with the Wolfhounds. “You can find a computer science guy, a technician, an electrician, an engineer, a lawyer. There’s just so much diversity it definitely is a great place to network.”
Cahill and Bruce stop short of calling rugby the next U.S. pastime. Like soccer, its continuous play does not cater to commercial- and promotion-laden American sports. There is a professional niche, but it will not replace the NFL on Sundays.
To those engaged in a scrum alongside a Cambridge physician, an ex-college soccer player and a Needham plumber, there is no need for marketing.
Cahill: “Once you join a club, it’s kind of like a family.”
Thanks to a rise in popularity, there are many more families from which to choose.
Link to the Pats
Even fans of the region’s premier sports franchise have gained greater familiarity with rugby -- this spring the Patriots drafted Nate Ebner, a world class rugby player during his pre-college years who walked on to the Ohio State football team. Ebner, a safety and special teams player, has appeared in both games for the Pats this year.
Live in Boston? Interested in rugby?
The Wolfhounds welcome new players. They train every Tuesday and Thursday and can usher those interested into the right group. For more information, visit www.biwrfc.com or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org