Before Thursday, Alyssa Lyman had never held a rugby ball nor had she ever heard of the sport. But after receiving a crash course during her physical education class, the freshman at Wellington C. Mepham High School in Bellmore was weaving around her classmates, tossing and catching the ball, as they successfully carried it down the field to score a “try,” rugby’s equivalent of a touchdown.
“I didn’t know what rugby was,” Lyman, 14, said. “I heard it was like football, but it was actually easier than football.”
Pat Laczkowski, youth development officer for RugbyNY, said the sport is actually safer, too.
“There’s a very negative stereotype that goes along with rugby,” Laczkowski said. “When mothers hear ‘rugby,’ they shudder.”
In reality, Laczkowski said, the level of injuries typical of a rugby game is similar to that of a soccer match. While players may walk away with some cuts and bruises, they are less likely to sustain a serious injury, he said, because, without the pads and helmets, the hits aren’t as hard or risky as in football.
Throughout the week, Laczkowski introduced more than 2,000 students of the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District to the basics of the game. He spent time at each of the district’s five schools, teaching students how to pass and receive the ball while running non-contact drills.
On Thursday night, 75 student athletes from Mepham, John F. Kennedy High School and Grand Avenue Middle School in Bellmore, and Sanford H. Calhoun High School and Merrick Avenue Middle School in Merrick will test out their newly acquired rugby skills in a non-contact game setting. Starting at 6 p.m. at Mepham High School, they’ll compete under the lights in the district’s first Bellmore-Merrick Fall Rugby Classic.
Mepham senior and varsity football player Chris Durkin will be one of those chosen athletes.
“It’s going to be a new sport for everyone, so it’s going to be a nice learning curve,” Durkin, 17, of Bellmore, said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how much better the game gets once we all get a little more comfortable with it.”
Non-contact rugby will be officially implemented in the district’s physical education curriculum next fall.
“Any time you add a new sport to to the physical education curriculum the kids get excited,” said Anthony Cracco, Mepham’s dean, varsity football coach and athletic director.
During the 2012-2013 school year, representatives from USA Rugby and its sponsor, AIG, reached out to district officials. As part of their plan to grow USA Rugby’s Rookie Rugby youth development program, they sent an instructor to Mepham to introduce the district’s physical education staff to their non-contact version of the sport.
Saul Lerner, the district’s director of physical education, athletics and health, said he is also open to the idea of creating a competitive interscholastic rugby program, and plans to gauge the level of interest after Thursday night’s event.
“I could certainly envision an interscholastic rugby program throughout Long Island,” Cracco said.
Laczkowski said one of the goals of RugbyNY, USA Rugby’s state-based rugby organization, is to develop talent for the United States’ national rugby team now that the sport has again been added to the Olympics.
“I want to see one of the kids that I introduce rugby to represent our country,” he said. “Maybe, they’ll thank me when they win a gold medal in 2020.”