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 increased 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 while participation again rose in 2010, there are now more than one million Americans playing the game that no one seems to understand. Across the region, kids from Belmont to Needham to Northborough are signing up at rugby clubs and, when available, even high school teams, at record rates.
And 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.
‘The rules and the way you tackle people make it safer than football.’
But there’s a stereotype of the game that Josh Sapers, a rising senior at Newton South, and many of his peers still can’t seem to shake.
“Everyone thinks it’s football without pads,” said Sapers, whose U19 squad from the Boston Rugby Club captured the bronze medal on Saturday.
“And that’s false. The rules and the way you tackle people make it safer than football. It’s just tough getting people to break away from that initial reaction.”
The user fee to play a sport at Newton South is $300, excluding football, which is $400.
Sapers’ father, Michael, who coaches the club rugby squad at South, said that financial resistance to other sports has been one of the chief reasons why rugby has, and should continue, to become more popular.
At South, Sapers has no cuts. Everyone gets a chance to play. And the total cost for the entire season is a quarter of the price of playing football.
“It’s not a varsity sport, so I can charge $105, which is the true cost,” Sapers said. “I don’t have to charge the kids $300, which makes it more accessible to kids who don’t have a lot of money. We even scholarship some of our kids.
“We have a lot of them who are Metco students that didn’t grow up with all this access to, say, soccer coaching. So it’s hard for them to make the soccer team.
“Rugby is the real equalizer because no one knows how to play it. Everybody is starting at ground zero.”
One of the bigger resistances fighting the growth of rugby, though, has been in trying to attract some of the better athletes.
Belmont High coach Greg Bruce says it has been nearly impossible, especially since rugby hasn’t been featured in the Olympics since 1924. And while 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.
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. It is a game in which David can beat Goliath over and over.
Picture this scene from game action on Saturday: On the same field there was a 5-foot-7, 120-pound player sprinting away from someone with a physical 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 raw reputation, worried mothers can’t help but visualize their children lying on the ground with a serious 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.
“You see the shirts that say, ‘Give blood, play rugby,’” said Michael Rudzinsky, a 2011 Belmont Hill graduate who played for the club rugby team at University of South Carolina this spring.
“People jump to conclusions. They say, ‘It’s violent,’ or, ‘In football you have a helmet and you’re protected more.’ But if you look at rugby, people are learning how to tackle. They’re not going helmet to helmet. I have to break down, get behind the person’s body and take them to the ground.
“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 without missing a game.”
Rudzinsky’s father, Dave, who coached the U17 team from Mystic River Rugby Club in the Bay State Games, said football players actually have a lot to gain from rugby.
St. John’s Prep allows its athletes to play both, and Rudzinky believes the Eagles have the most successful rugby high school program in Eastern Massachusetts.
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 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 in Rio de Janeiro, the sport appears ready to take off.
Hopefully by then, Josh Sapers and other area youths 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.
Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.