Most of the sixth-graders on South Boston’s Joe Moakley Park on Saturday had never seen a rugby match before. Ten weeks ago, most only knew it was “kind of like football.”
But after a semester learning the rules of the game, four local schools came together for Boston’s first middle school rugby tournament as boys and girls raced up and down the muddy field and squealed “try!” when they touched the ball down in the endzone.
The tournament was the culmination of an expanding partnership between Citizen Schools, a Boston-based education nonprofit, and the newly minted Massachusetts Youth Rugby Organization.
Organizers believe that rugby — a sport more commonly associated with other countries and fancy New England prep schools — is the perfect extracurricular for public school students in Boston because of its focus on teamwork, communication, and respect for officials and peers.
“I don’t think that there’s a sport in the world that requires more teamwork,” said Bill Good, president of the Massachusetts Youth Rugby Organization. “There’s not a quarterback that can turn your team around by himself. It’s all about working together.”
Rugby, a sport invented in England and popular in New Zealand and South Africa, has had its strongest foothold in the United States in metropolitan clubs, as well as men and women’s college teams. More recently, the sport’s reach has spread to high school.
But middle school teams like the Citizen Schools program are rare. More than five years ago, Good, a longtime rugger, was asked to teach the basics of rugby to a small group of students at a local middle school. He eventually gained the attention of Citizen Schools, who wanted to incorporate the sport into their curriculum.
This year, for the first time, there were enough schools with teams to organize a tournament.
The program, which extends the school day by incorporating a variety of after-school “apprenticeships,” scheduled 90 minutes of rugby once per week for the past 10 weeks. They encounter their first rugby ball — egg-shaped like a football, but fatter — and learn to say “try” instead of “touchdown.” With practice, they become adept at passing laterally, running forward with the ball, and following their teammates to be ready for a supporting pass.
“Every once in a while you see the passing forward and the football moves,” said Christine Moyer, one of the coaches, who also plays on the Boston University Women’s rugby team. “But they come to really appreciate rugby for its history and because it’s played all around the world.”
In just 10 weeks, Moyer said, she has seen how the sport has taught them to communicate better — rugby requires a constant stream of talking about who is open and ready to receive a pass — and to work more as a team.
Good said the sport also serves as a much-needed outlet for pent-up energy among the middle-schoolers, as well as a source of aerobic exercise and an opportunity for building self-esteem.
Since the Massachusetts Youth Rugby Organization was founded in 2010, it has focused mostly on high school teams. But initiatives like the Citizen Schools rugby apprenticeship might be the harbinger of similar pre-teen programs.
“We’re in the infantile stages of bringing this sport to the youth of Massachusetts,” said David Colli, marketing and fund-raising chairman for the Massachusetts Youth Rugby Organization about the Boston program. “And these guys are really pioneers and trailblazers.”
Saturday’s tournament featured a round-robin of players from the Washington Irving Middle School, Edwards, the Lee Academy, and Orchard Gardens K-8 School. It wasn’t exactly full-fledged rugby: There were no scrums and instead of tackling, boys and girls snatched at velcro flags.
Rugby is a sport that can be played easily by both boys and girls, said Erin Quinlan, program development officer for the Massachusetts Youth Rugby Organization. Because few of the students have any exposure to rugby before starting the 10-week program, she said, girls have a chance to improve their skills as quickly as boys.
“They always start out on the same footing,” she said. “They all have a chance to run with the ball, and it’s not like there’s the one girl who’s never played football and all the boys dominate.”
With their jacket hoods up to protect them from the cold drizzle, Michelle Barnes and Anthony Nicholson watched their son, Jonathan, from the sidelines and marveled.
They didn’t know a lot about rugby, they admitted, but were happy to see that their son had taken a shine to it. After each practice, he explained the rules to his parents and caught them up on rugby lingo.
It was exciting, Nicholson said, to see their children get involved in a sport with such an international following.
“Usually it’s just football and basketball,” he said. “This is an opportunity for them to excel in something a little different.”
Still, it has taken some work for Jonathan to learn the finer points of the game — and forget all that he knows from football.
“You can’t spin – that was a little tricky for him at first, he had to get used to that,” Barnes said.
Jonathan caught a pass, dodged a grab for his flag and streaked down the field, touching the ball to the ground in the try zone as the sport’s rules demand.
She giggled. “It seems,” she said, “like he’s getting the hang of it.”