Brendan Droge loves the NFL, but he can't help but wonder if a lockout wouldn't be such a bad thing. His mind can't but wander when he fantasizes about rugby games being televised, he said, "and not at 3 in the morning."
"In terms of popularity, it's made a lot of progress the last 10 years," Droge, the Molloy College rugby coach, said. "If there's no football, rugby would be a nice alternative."
That's unlikely, but not far-fetched.
The sport has hopscotched its way over from Europe and is now growing in the United States. It does have a following on Long Island, certainly at the college level. Molloy games regularly draw 200-300 spectators, Droge said, and more than 700 attended a homecoming game last autumn. Hofstra and Stony Brook also have established clubs, and the sport has begun planting little rugby seeds. East Islip High School has a budding rugby program and there is the Long Island Colts under-19 team. As well, rugby will be included in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Molloy, Stony Brook and Hofstra are part of the Met Union, a large league with three divisions that competes in the fall. During the spring, the teams typically play 12-14 matches, including next week's Beast of the East Tournament in Providence that will include men's and women's clubs.
"It's showing up more in the media, and I think people are becoming more aware of the sport," Droge said. "I'm sure some got to see a little of it in the movie ['Invictus'] . . . Rugby is just going to continue to grow."
On a smaller scale, Droge has witnessed its growth at his own school. Two dates stick out.
April 1, 2006: 55-10, Hofstra over Molloy.
April 10, 2011: 33-17, Molloy over Hofstra.
Quite a difference five years made. Back then, Molloy's program was in its infancy -- a newborn, really -- and the thumping it took from an established and experienced Hofstra team told that tale. Back then, Molloy had just enough players on its roster for a starting lineup. Back then, several of its players were learning the sport as they went.
This season, the Lions went 7-2 and won their Division III conference title. And last Sunday, it produced swarming defense, breakaway runs, efficient passing and lots of tries. (A try, if you're wondering, is the equivalent of a touchdown -- worth five points, and followed by a conversion kick, worth two.)
And it was Molloy that came out on top, for the first time, in the fourth annual Long Island Cup. The Lions defeated Stony Brook, 26-7, on April 8, then knocked off defending champ Hofstra -- another first -- to win the round-robin tournament.
"We probably shouldn't be beating those teams," Droge said. "Molloy is a small school and we're new, so it's very fulfilling. It's particularly gratifying to beat Hofstra."
Even more so because the Lions accomplished that sans three of their best players. Greg Azzata and Sean Flanagan were in Albany to play in an all-star game, and Joe Buscarino is spending the spring teaching in England. But the team "filled the void," Droge said. In particular, half-scrum Rob Catalano and Tom Gaynor, the fly-half, who is essentially the quarterback of the offense and defense. Because of the absences, freshman Nick Berardi shifted from wing to outside center to fill in "and came up big in both games," the coach said.
"Rugby is a sport most people get introduced to in college," Droge said. "When I started the team five years ago, we went through some growing pains. The difference now is that we've got a lot of seniors who've been teammates for 3-4 years and know the game . . . [The struggles] probably helped make us stronger, though. A lot of the guys on the team remember what it was like getting killed every weekend and that drives them."
Droge grew up playing the common American sports, he said, and rugby was just something he "saw on TV a couple times." A few fliers and some curiosity got him on the team at Iona College. When Droge began working in Molloy's admissions office in 2005, his push for a rugby team soon followed. The school administrators were supportive, he said, and the program started in 2006 as a club team, funded by student government allocations, alumni donations and team fundraisers.
Its rise was gradual -- "Getting guys together that are willing to try a sport they've never played is hard," Droge said. But word spread, campus recruiting increased and, it turns out, rugby does have a draw on Long Island. There was an influx of tryouts in 2008 and the women's team was formed that year (the women are coached by men's assistant coach Scott Salvato). The men's roster is now deep with 35 players, and Molloy has 25 young ladies who welcome the physical play.
"My hope, my goal, is for people from coast to coast to know about it," Droge said. "We want to make sure people in California are familiar with Molloy rugby."