Starting this spring, rugby will be the 35th sport sanctioned by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. But at St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers, it’s hardly something new.
After starting out as a club program, Prep rugby was elevated to varsity status in 2002, and the Eagles won the Massachusetts Youth Rugby Organization title from 2007 to 2012.
The Eagles come from a variety of athletic backgrounds that, when combined, work well in the game the British call football.
“We get soccer players whose fitness levels really match rugby well,” said head coach Seelan Manickam. “It’s a very similar style as far as constant movement on the field. Then we also get wrestlers who are just fantastic at the tackling game, so it’s a diverse group.”
Seniors Zach Ahlin, Harrison Hosker, and Connor Robinson all played football in the fall, but each said rugby forms a closer bond.
“Especially when I was a sophomore and junior with football, I really only knew the guys on defense . . . some of the defensive backs, maybe some of the linebackers,” Ahlin said. “With rugby, I’m friends with all the guys around me.”
Said Hosker, “A lot of times in football, if you’re a lineman you only hang out the lineman. Here, you hang out with the whole team. I feel like have a tighter bond with my rugby teammates than any other sport I play.”
Unlike football, every rugby player has the opportunity to get his hands on the ball and be a playmaker.
“Everyone in rugby can score,” Manickam said. “We tend to get a lot of the lineman from the football team who never really get a chance to touch the ball. Now all of a sudden, not only can they score, but they are encouraged to score. It’s not a sport of individuals. You can’t watch a guy run the ball and just cheer him on. You’re running with them. It’s a constant helping each other.”
In rugby, players can score in four ways. A try, worth 5 points, occurs when the ball is touched down across the opponent’s goal line; a conversion kick following a try is worth 2 points. A penalty kick at the goal, worth 3 points, can be awarded for various infractions. A dropped goal occurs when a player drops the ball and then kicks it just as it bounces through the uprights, and is worth 3 points.
“There’s no Tom Brady who can just take over games,” said Manickam. “In rugby, you need everyone to win. Everyone relies on each other a lot more than other sports.”
Brian Barrett will play football for Tufts in the fall, but has been a solid presence on the Eagles’ rugby team throughout high school and plans to play during the summer in college.
“[Brian is] one of our more talented guys and I think he’s going to be a force in the rugby world going forward,” Manickam said.
But no matter what sport is in their background, with the constant motion that rugby requires, Prep players must be in shape and prepared to run.
“Fitness is a huge part of what we do in practice,” Manickam said. “Our players have to be ready to be always moving.”
The team’s stamina were put to the test at the end of last season when the Eagles took on Boston College High in the state youth rugby finals. In 85-degree weather, BC High went up early and tactically began to kick the ball around, making the Eagles run all over the field to work their way back in the game. St. John’s Prep couldn’t complete the comeback and fell, 37-17.
“[BC High] was relentless all game,” Hosker said. “They just made us work and tired us out.”
Now, the Eagles aim to capture the first ever state crown under the MIAA umbrella. The Prep will play a similar Catholic Conference schedule to last season, including a rematch against BC High on Wednesday, April 5.
“I love the camaraderie,” Ahlin said. “I’ve been with these guys for four years. We know each other in and out, and I know that once I leave, I’m always going to have them.”
P.J. Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.