MELROSE — The dog days of summer would not seem ideal for gathering a large group of kids at a sports field, let alone a rugby pitch.
But at Pine Banks Park, that’s just what happens every Tuesday and Thursday night when the Mystic River Rugby Club, which includes one of the top youth rugby programs in the Boston area, sets up shop.
Liam Smith, 15, can usually be found there.
Smith, a rising sophomore at Malden Catholic this year, began playing rugby for the Mystics when he was 7 years old and now plays on the U19 team that competes in tournaments all over New England.
His father, he said, “saw a Mystic ad in the newspaper. I haven’t looked back since.”
Smith is playing in his second season for the Mystic U19 team, headed by Tom Clark.
Clark, who played rugby at Bowling Green State University from 1988 to 1993, has been coaching with the Mystics for the last three years. He also coaches at St. John’s Prep and Tufts University. One of the many rewards of coaching in the youth program is watching his players develop and grow.
“We have kids now coming back from their college programs,” he said. “I take real pride in that.”
Michael Rudzinsky, a senior at South Carolina University, is one of those players who is giving back.
“I’ve been a part of Mystic River Rugby Club since I was born,” he said. “I grew up at the rugby field.”
Rudzinsky and his father, Dave, started the youth program nine years ago, at Michael’s urging. It has since flourished into a huge success, incorporating players from ages 5 to 19.
The younger Rudzinsky is coaching in the youth program this summer.
“I loved the game so much when I was young,” he said. “It’s really started to pick up. Just the growth of the game itself and getting these kids out here.”
Although the Mystics have a long history of success at the youth and men’s level, the club made a big splash earlier this month with the announcement that it will merge with the Middlesex Barbarians Rugby Club. The new club will begin playing in the men’s Division I and II levels this fall.
The Mystics have consistently been one of the top men’s rugby clubs in New England since the 1990s, when they made it to their first club championship National Finals in 1992. They have been Northeast Champions seven times, including four years in a row from 2009 through 2012. They made it to the Men’s Division I Elite Eight club championships three years in a row, from 2010 through 2012.
Before the merger, Middlesex was one of the fastest-rising clubs in the area. Within 10 years, the club became one of the most formidable opponents on the Mystics’ schedule.
Middlesex was founded in 2002 by University of Massachusetts Lowell alumni, and in the span of 10 years it jumped from a small Division III club to one of the top Division I men’s clubs in the Boston area.
Led by Josh Smith and former president Dan Mullane, the Barbarians quickly ascended through the ranks and began making a huge imprint on the Boston rugby scene.
“When they first came on the scene in Malden in Division III, we took notice because it was in our backyard, but then it was like our little brother,” Mystic president Brett Willis said. “They very quickly became a superior team, so you couldn’t help but respect the effort they put in.”
Now that they have united, Willis and Smith believe they can form a team that can compete at the national level.
Mystic marketing director Dale du Preez hopes that with the merger, the club can expand its reach to a wider range of players and build a stronger developmental program.
“Fielding a deeper club allows all the players to develop and perform better,” said du Preez. “It will be an incredible thing for the club because it means we can support a lot more players at various levels.”
Smith, the Middlesex coach since 2007 who will be head coach of the combined team, said he looks forward to seeing the product they will put on the field. “I’m excited to put the two clubs together,” he said. “We’re going to be putting two [teams] out there competing at a national level.”
With the merger, Willis hopes they can build an even stronger team that continues to foster the Mystic family culture.
“The number one thing about the club is the culture,” said. “It sets us apart. It’s attractive to a lot of players who want to play very good rugby but want to be rewarded with a strong social atmosphere and a family-type culture.”
“The goal was long-term,” Smith said of the merger. “We want to corner the market north of Boston.”
“It keeps coming back to the culture for me,” said Willis. “It’s like adopting a bunch of kids. You’re looking forward to the experiences that you’re going to have together.”
Isaac Chipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.