There’s a new sport coming to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association this spring.
Four boys’ teams south of Boston have taken the plunge into the MIAA for a variety of reasons, but a couple others have opted against the move just now.
“Massachusetts is the first state to add rugby as a varsity sport to their association, which means a lot to the coaches in this state,” said Matt Pomella, Marshfield’s rugby coach. “Rugby has become a popular sport and is on the rise in many states, so it’s good to see it recognized.”
Hanover, Marshfield, Milton, and Xaverian Brothers in Westwood will be part of the experimental first year under the MIAA, while Scituate and Oliver Ames in Easton watch from the outside. Then, those two schools can review and decide for next spring season.
Before rugby existed as an MIAA sport, every team played under the Massachusetts Youth Rugby Organization, which allowed teams to compete statewide, with a playoff bracket and a state champion for each division.
Coaches largely agreed that MYRO worked well for the sport, but once MIAA sanctioned it as well, many could see that making the leap might bring financial and organizational benefits, and take a good deal of pressure off them every season.
“It’s great to know that everything is set up before the season starts,” said Andy McLean, Hanover’s rugby coach. “It allows the team to practice without worrying and makes them enjoy the sport, which is the most important thing.”
In the MYRO league, the coaches are responsible for scheduling games, scheduling referees, and ordering buses. Each team must fund-raise throughout the year to get equipment, jerseys, and to pay the league registration fee.
Now, in the MIAA, public-school teams like Hanover, Milton, and Marshfield don’t feel the pressure of those duties. The athletic administration at each school oversees scheduling buses, while the MIAA sets up the games. The coaches also don’t need to worry about finance, since their varsity-sport status means funding by their athletic departments.
At Xaverian Brothers, joining the MIAA brought fewer changes. Rugby has been a varsity sport at the school for the last decade, with funding provided by its athletic department all the while. Going to the MIAA was an easy call.
“We’ve been kind of waiting for rugby to become a MIAA sport,” said Judah Boulet, the school’s rugby coach. “I like the number of teams for the first year, and I know it will continue to grow for the next two, five, and 10 years.”
Teams like Scituate and Oliver Ames are hoping to make that move to the MIAA sooner than later, but both teams need to build more before making the switch. Scituate has been playing rugby for 10 years as a club sport, but decided to stay in MYRO because of ongoing school construction and a roster of 23 players, a number school leaders thought too low to make the jump.
“I was surprised with the number of teams that joined MIAA this year,” said Tucker Patterson, Scituate’s rugby coach. “I think in the next year or two, we’ll be joining the MIAA because the competition will be there.”
Oliver Ames athletic director Bill Matthews, who says his school’s rugby players are still learning the game, has similar expectations.
But the number of high school rugby players in general has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years, said McLean, the Hanover coach. That’s largely because football and basketball coaches recommend their players sign up for rugby in the spring to stay in shape and improve basic skills like tackling and strategy.
Teams in the region that have signed up for MIAA rugby have generally played under the association’s rules since their inception. The only big change for the players is the requirement that they wear scrum caps, protective headwear meant to spare them from serious injuries.
Xaverian Brothers senior captains Bobby Holmberg and Joe Rombalski have worn the caps for many years, so it’s not an adjustment, but they’d still rather not.
“It just seems like an extra piece that isn’t necessary,’’ said Rombalski, “but it’s nothing we’re not used to.”
There will be two MIAA rugby divisions for the spring season with a total of 14 teams competing for a state title. Division 1 will consist of Xaverian Brothers along with Boston College High, Brookline, St. John’s Prep, Belmont, Needham, and Lincoln-Sudbury. Division 2 will include Hanover, Marshfield, and Milton along with Cambridge Rindge and Latin, Algonquin, Malden Catholic, and Catholic Memorial.
Teams will play each divisional opponent once, and those with .500 records will make the state tournament.
“There’s a lot of unknowns coming into the first season,” said Joe Dolan, Milton’s rugby coach. “Right now, we’re focused on the first step, and probably the most important step. We’re being recognized as a varsity sport in this state.”