A 'brotherhood of hooligans': Rugby club kicks off 16th year of fun, service

Old Lyme — The New London County Rugby Football Club went about its business on Valentine's Day: sprinting, dodging, kicking, grunting and trying to tackle engineers resembling tanks.

"It's not always an easy sell to the wife," said club Vice President Will Hergott, an Oakdale Navy veteran who got hooked on rugby when stationed here 10 years ago. "It's very demanding. But it's a cool brotherhood of hooligans who get together, get very physical, test each other and have a couple pints of beer afterward."

Founded in 2003, the nonprofit club of 20 to 30 men — about a dozen of whom practiced at the Old Lyme High School gym Thursday while the rest stayed home with valentines — competes in New England Rugby Football Union Division 3. As the team gears up for its spring season, which kicks off March 16 in a matchup at Greenwich, it will practice twice weekly either in Old Lyme, the Dual Language and Arts Magnet Middle School in Waterford or Wide World of Indoor Sports in Montville.

After home matches at Waterford's Clark Lane Middle School, the squad gathers at sponsor Hot Rods Café in New London for a keg and wings shared among comrades and opponents alike. It's customary, according to 28-year-old player Steve DeRosa, for home clubs to host visitors and referees for "a social or drink up."

"We beat the hell out of each other for a match, then afterwards ... I overhear a guy on my team and a guy on the other team reminiscing on their time in the military. It's a great way to meet people," said DeRosa, who played at Iona College. "We go up to Burlington, Vt., have a rough match. It's hailing on us. It's freezing. It got chippy. Go to the bar later and the guy from Burlington who smoked one of our players and was in his face apologized and said that wasn't true to his character. Our guy said, 'Cheers.'"

Whether Navy veterans, Coast Guardsmen, contractors, teachers, salesmen or Electric Boat workers, the club has drawn southeastern Connecticut natives and newcomers with a range of athletic experience. Many wrestled or played football or soccer for local schools, and several played rugby in college. Others never gave rugby a shot before checking out a practice, where the team conducts a rapid dance of punting, chasing, backward passes and two-hand-touch. A few are just out of college in their early to mid-20s; others are holding their own after topping 40.

"No prior experience necessary," Hergott said. "It's not like football — it's constantly moving. We'll get you in the best shape of your life."

For Captain Alex Frederick, 26, who played at Eastern Connecticut State University as well as with clubs in England while studying abroad, friendship is the biggest draw to the sport. Taking a break near the bleachers on Thursday, he pointed to a "new guy" holding a rugby ball.

"This is just his second time here. Now he's got all these friends," said Frederick, who works at EB and has a long-term vision of the region hosting a professional rugby squad in decades to come. "New London is growing. If all these jobs are coming to the New London area, this team could get better and climb the ranks."

While the New London County club is for men, several area colleges feature women’s rugby teams, and many larger New England cities, including New Haven, feature competitive amateur clubs for women.

'It's a shoving match'

Ben Buehler says he was "thoroughly intimidated" during his first rugby practice in a middle school gym.

"I hadn't played sports all through college, going against guys who had been playing for years. One guy was here with a weighted vest," said Buehler, 31, of North Stonington. "I could barely drive home afterward, I was so exhausted. I was driving a manual car and couldn't push my clutch in."

Now Buehler's an eight-year veteran of the New London County club. He and other players describe the game as a battle of wits, toughness and speed, where everyone must play both offense and defense and almost everyone gets their hands on the ball at some point. The New London County team plays rugby union, one of many forms of the sport and the precursor to American football, Buehler said.

Fifteen players on each side play two 40-minute halves on a 100-meter by 70-meter pitch (in the local club's case, it's typically just a 100-yard soccer field). Players run and lateral, or toss, the ball to one another — always backward; forward passes or fumbling forward are infractions — while avoiding opposing tacklers and pushing toward a try zone (similar to an end zone in football) to score points.

There's no blocking and no shoulder charges or checking, Buehler said, noting "you have to wrap up when you tackle."

Anytime someone drops or loses control of the ball, the teams restart with a scrum, which Alex Poletti, a 30-year-old history teacher at Parish Hill High School in Chaplin, described as "all eight of the forwards in a giant huddle. You come together and it's a shoving match" to gain control of the ball.

Frederick said unlike football, positions in rugby aren't as specialized, meaning "everybody needs to be able to throw well, tackle well and run well. It's very much a coordinated team effort. You don't have the Tom Bradys. You don't have that superstar factor."

'Etiquette across the board'

Dave Carlson, who wrestled at East Lyme High School and played rugby at Southern Connecticut State University, got the club going 16 years ago, when he was 34. Back then, the closest rugby clubs were in New Haven, Hartford and Providence, and Carlson wanted to bring the sport to New London County.

"I put up five dozen fliers everywhere from Groton to Old Saybrook. Every Dunkin' Donuts. Every gym. Every package store," he said, noting five guys showed up at the first meeting at Station 58 in New London. "There's no such thing as a one-man rugby team. The only reason it's been successful is because of how many people have showed up to participate. It's been a tremendous project."

But the first couple years weren't very pretty on the pitch, according to multiple long-time players.

"In the early years, they didn't win a lot, and when they lost, they lost by double digits," Hergott said.

"It was a steep learning curve because we never had a time where there were 15 guys on the field who had all played rugby before," said Carlson, a longtime social worker with the Department of Children and Families. "But part of the attraction of rugby is the respect and community that develops. So every team that we met throughout New England — yeah they beat the crap out of us, but they offered us plenty of support and advice on how to keep the club going."

The team also has seen some success, including a couple NERFU Division 3 championships and reaching the sweet 16 in national playoffs in 2012. Carlson said the team has received help from solid coaches, including John McCormick, who's coached with the Coast Guard women's team, and Mark Jordan, UConn Women's Rugby Team head coach.

The rugby club also has been dedicated to community service since its founding, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, conducting countless food drives and raising money for the Special Olympics, the Wounded Warrior Project, Safe Futures and other groups. At the Penguin Plunge to benefit the Special Olympics, the club has won "most spirited team" the last couple of years, DeRosa said.

Carlson said the service efforts partly stem from the community-building nature of the game, and the respect players share with teammates and rivals.

"What people love about rugby is, the expectation is that you show up and that you are physically and mentally prepared and that you play as hard as you possibly can, but built into the culture is that when the game is over, it's over," he said. "You shake hands. Even within the game itself you'll notice nobody yells at the ref. They call the ref, 'Sir.' You get sent off the field if you're mouthing off. There's a lot of etiquette across the board."

DeRosa said anyone interested in playing should message the club on Facebook or check out its website, nlrugby.org.

"You never know unless you try," Carlson said. "We've never turned anyone away. We've had all cultures and backgrounds. We've had some people who show up and leave after one practice. We've had others who stay for 10 years. Guys who played five or eight years ago still come to matches with their babies and stand on the side and watch. Once it gets under your skin, it's tough to find something else that is as fun."

b.kail@theday.com

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