NEW YORK - The 2021 Major League Rugby season is underway in the United States. So get ready for a lot of "trys".
A try is similar to a touchdown in American Football, but as rugby fans know, the two games are very different.
While Rugby United New York practices on a freezing March day preparing for their first game in over a year, when the coronavirus shut down the MLR season after five games, you can see, the rugby players are built like football players, line up similarly and pass an oblong ball in order to get it into an end zone to score, but they aren’t wearing any equipment.
And if there’s anyone who knows the ins and outs of Rugby, it’s Andy Ellis, a 2011 World Cup Champion with the All Blacks New Zealand National Team.
"Yeah, we don't wear headgear or, shoulder pads, and yet we’re just diving into each other on the field," says Ellis.
And while rugby is a popular sport on many college campuses, Nate Brakeley, who played rugby at Dartmouth University and is now in his fourth season with RUNY, says he continues to see the popularity of rugby grow.
"When we first started, we'd go out and people ask if we were a soccer team, the Knicks dancers even. But it’s changing, people are learning the game and I think now, people recognize the sport," Brakeley says.
Rugby United won their opening match, beating San Diego on the road 36-29.
RUNY boasts a talented international roster with players from Argentina, Brazil, Fiji, and of course New Zealand, where rugby is arguably the most popular sport in the country. And yet, Ellis traveled to the other side of the world to continue his career, where rugby isn’t nearly as popular.
"American people love sports, they love entertainment. And so to be able to come over here and, really try and grow the game of rugby is something that really excites me," Ellis says.
But Rugby United New York is facing major challenges. Due to the pandemic, they lost their home stadium, MCU Park in Coney Island where the Mets Minor League affiliate, the Brooklyn Cyclones play, and where the Mets will have an alternate site due to continued health protocols in Major League Baseball.
Ric Salizzo, Rugby United’s Senior Consultant says, "Because of COVID, there's been some changes to the minor league schedule. So we normally would play our games at MCU Park, but it's no longer available for us."
Salizzo was brought in from New Zealand to help Rugby United find a stadium in time for their home schedule. He also had to find a new place for the team to train, after they were not permitted back on campus at Wagner College, where they had previously been training, practicing, and called their home base.
It was right before the season was to start, and most of the players were already in town to start training camp.
"So we found this warehouse in Jersey City, and, the boys built their own gym from scratch. And, the people at Berry Lane Park (in Jersey City across the street from the warehouse) have made this available to us, which is amazing," says Salizzo with a big smile as he stands on the sideline at Berry Lane Park watching RUNY Practice.
And while the artificial turf at Berry Lane Park is all clear now, last month the Rugby United Players themselves had to dig out several feet of snow, to clear an area, just so they could practice.
Salizzo says, "It's funny because the players showed up for training and I said, 'Well, that's really cool, but you know, you have to clear out some snow before you can go for a run.' And rugby players are great. They don't expect anyone else to do it for them."
So they got some shovels and went to work.
Barkeley laughs about it, saying, "It's comical, but it's just one more thing. And then at the end of the day, it builds a bit of character builds a bit of camaraderie."
Rugby United starts the season with four road games. Their first scheduled home game is April 18th. The team has had talks with almost every college in the New York/New Jersey area, but due to strict COVID-19 restrictions, no visitors are allowed on campuses any time soon. And any pro stadium brings high costs and scheduling conflicts.
While the team has confidence they will find a home, it is an urgent matter for a growing sport in a town with 13 professional sports teams.
"We gotta build a spot that not only we can feel at home in, but all the fans can, too. We need a spot that we can rally around, that we can put our flag down," says Barkeley.
Ellis adds, "Oh, it's crucial for us to find a home ground. Because in New York, the community, we want to make people proud."