WEYMOUTH — Rugby players don’t wear hard helmets or use a lot of padding. It is a fast-paced, violent game, and sometimes blood is spilled.Everything is left on the pitch.
“It’s like the gladiators back in the day,” says New England Free Jacks head coach Ryan Martin, a former New Zealand schoolteacher.
The Free Jacks are co-owned by former Patriots Nate Ebner and Patrick Chung, and in their first full season in Major League Rugby, they are well worth a look.
They have free parking, rabid fans, and even their own brand of IPA. Games take less than two hours, and the action is virtually nonstop.
“Welcome to the Jungle” blares from speakers at the Union Point Sports Complex, just like at Gillette Stadium. Wally the Green Monster shows up at games and fans wear tricornered hats. There are food trucks and beer gardens, and Army recruiters on-site searching for tough guys.
The rugby is top-notch.
The Free Jacks recently faced the Austin Gilgronis, the best defensive team in the league.
Things started off badly, as the Free Jacks fell behind, 11-0 in the first half and 18-5 in the second.
“We dug ourselves quite a hole,” says Martin. “If this was any other team, we’d be down by 30 points.”
But the Free Jacks, a combination of international stars and young American players who hold local jobs (including a Rhode Island oysterman), refused to quit.
“It’s a real tight unit,” says Martin. “The boys live together in various places around Boston and have become brothers. We’re building something special here.”
In the second half, they dominate the Gilgronis, a team named after a cocktail that played as though it were hungover.
With less than 13 minutes remaining, the Free Jacks made five consecutive lateral passes. Harry Barlow, a speedster from England, caught the last at full gallop and raced in for the winning try.
Austin defenders didn’t even get close enough to him to read the team motto, “Together we ride,” a Paul Revere reference, printed on the back of his collar.
A COVID-limited sellout crowd of 1,200 fans cheered the 22-18 comeback victory.
Harrison Boyle, a New Zealander who was actually born in Boston, says the team is well aware of the vocal supporters.
“We were a bit disappointed after that first half, so we wanted to come out and really put on a show for them,” he says. “And I think we did that.”
Boyle, a towering, 6-foot-4-inch redhead, says rugby is uniquely different from other American sports.
“In rugby, the action is nonstop,” he says. “There’s no massive breaks in between plays. Everybody does everything in the game of rugby; everyone touches the ball. There’s bodies every shape and size, so it’s a game everyone can get behind.”
It’s also violent. Winston Churchill supposedly said, “Rugby is a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen.”
Coach Martin agrees.
“I think there’s a little bit of the bruteness and physicality of rugby that draws [fans] in,” he says.
“If you look at MMA, it’s one of the fastest-growing viewer sports in the world, because at the end of the day, they like to see blood. I think rugby still has the essence of that. There’s some brutal collisions, there’s no hold barred, and legally you can hurt people, which I think is [intriguing].”
But at the end of the game, even the fiercest opponents become friends.
“As soon as the whistle blows, you’ll share a beer and stories,” says Martin. “The camaraderie off the field is off the charts.”
But because of COVID concerns, the dejected Austin players merely shake hands with their opponents and quickly board buses.
The Free Jacks head over to the stands and applaud their fans.
Wian Conradie, a Free Jack loose forward from Namibia who scored in the 59th minute, says having fans in the stands really helps give the team energy.
“I’m enjoying our fans,” he says. “They’re passionate, and I’m also getting some cheers.”
His wife, Armouré, says rugby players have to be tough to compete but her husband has a softer side in real life. She greets him on the pitch with kisses.
“I just wanted to say, ‘Well-played,’ ” she says.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.