The soccer explosion of the 1990s has long been over; the sport’s title of fastest-growing in America is now a distant memory.
And while lacrosse inceased in popularity through most of the last decade, today’s youth appear to be heading in a different direction.
According to a study by the America's Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the fastest growing team sport from 2007 to 2009 was rugby.
And after participation again rose in 2010, there are now more than 1 million Americans playing the game that no one seems to understand.
For the first time in its 31 years of existence, the Bay State Games added rugby to the tournament list this summer, with eight teams kicking off a 7-on-7 festival this past Saturday at Devens Recreation Center.
But there’s a stereotype of the game that Wakefield native Michael Rudzinsky and many of his peers still can’t seem to shake.
“People jump to conclusions,” said Rudzinsky, a member of the U19 Mystic Valley Rugby Club squad that won the gold medal on Saturday.
“They say, ‘It’s violent,’ or, ‘In football you have a helmet and you’re protected more.’
“But the structure of the game is at such a high level that you don’t see the guys going in, flying with their heads and throwing punches. That never happens. I got through the entire college season [at University of South Carolina] without missing a game.”
The dangerous reputation of the sport, though, hasn’t seemed to stop it from growing. And Rudzinsky’s father, Dave, who coaches at Mystic Valley, says, “It’s bigger than you probably could even imagine.”
“And it’s cheap, so when the high schools come to grips with the fact that it’s not as dangerous and violent as some may think, it should keep growing,” he said.
“Today’s schools are so strapped with budgets and cutting fees. But all you need is a mouthpiece, some cleats, a shirt, and a couple of balls. It’s inexpensive to run it and for the kids to play it. So it’s not about the money.”
One of the bigger resistances fighting the growth of rugby, though, has been trying to attract some of the better athletes.
Belmont High coach Greg Bruce says it’s been nearly impossible, especially since rugby hasn’t been featured in the Olympics since 1924 (the sport will be reintroduced in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro).
And while Boston Rugby Club coach Michael Sapers estimates that 75 percent of high school rugby players go on to play in college, scholarship money has been about as rare as rain in the desert.
Michael Rudzinsky’s club team at South Carolina even has to pay its own travel costs to and from games. But because rugby is a fitness sport, in which gaining ball possession is a test of mental and physical will, having the best pure athletes isn’t necessary to compete. This is a game where David can beat Goliath over and over.
Picture this scene from Saturday: On the same field there was a 5-foot-7, 120-pound player sprinting away from someone with an advantage of about 6 inches and 80 pounds.
“One of the nice things about rugby is that there’s a place on the field for anybody,” said Sapers.
“You can be the really small, fast kid and you’d be a good winger. Or you could be a really big, slow kid and you can be a hooker,” the player in the front row of the scrum.
Yet due to the sport’s lack of pads and its raw reputation, worried mothers can’t help but visualize their children lying on the ground with an injury.
A number of high school football coaches, voicing the same concerns, are strongly against their players joining a rugby team during the offseason.
Rugby coaches say the injury rate in their sport is actually much lower than that of other contact sports, and they’re seeing about half the injuries that occur in football.
“When you’re playing a contact sport and not wearing any pads, you’re way more conscious about the way you’re hitting people,” said Chris Loughlin, who plays for Mystic River after finishing a stellar career at St. John’s Prep. “In football you can use your helmet as a weapon. You’re not leading with your head at all in rugby.”
One of the common misconceptions, Dave Rudzinsky says, is that bystanders will notice rugby players wearing headgear and assume it’s there to protect from violent collisions.
But the padding worn in rugby is simply designed to protect from cuts and abrasions, and is not believed to reduce concussive injury, which is typically not an issue in the sport.
“That headgear in rugby is not a helmet,” Rudzinsky said. “You’re not to hit the head in rugby. You’re not supposed to tackle like that. It’s the wrong mindset. It’s the football mindset.”
Rudzinsky thinks football players actually have a lot to gain from rugby.
St. John’s Prep, which has run off six straight undefeated seasons in rugby, allows its athletes to play both.
While there are about two dozen high schools with boys’ teams, mostly on the club level, in addition to a handful of schools with girls’ teams, Bruce said he thinks rugby will earn varsity status at the high school level “fairly soon.”
And with the 7-on-7 version of the game added to the 2016 Summer Olympics, the sport appears ready to take off.
Hopefully by then, Michael Rudzinsky and other young rugby players will stop having to explain the same rules over and over: This isn’t football. The ball can only be passed backward. And there are no touchdowns.