This is rugby, North Fork style

North Fork Rugby Club players during a scrum at practice. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)
North Fork Rugby Club players during a scrum at practice. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

To those who have never seen one before, a rugby ball is sort of odd looking, like a bloated football on steroids. One can imagine a rugby player being asked by somebody who doesn’t know better: “Hey dude, what’s wrong with your football?”

Rugby balls are not exactly a common sight on the North Fork, although they are becoming more common, thanks to the efforts of Mike Jablonski.

Jablonski, a Mattituck High School teacher who lives in Shoreham, is the founder and coach of the fledgling North Fork Rugby Club. He assembled an under-18 team that held after-school practices this spring and played its first game earlier this month. It is Jablonski’s hope that, with this modest beginning, rugby will gain a foothold on the North Fork.

“It’s played in pretty much every college around the country,” he said. “It’s actually the fastest-growing sport in America right now.”

Rugby was given an opening at Mattituck High School last year when a physical education teacher, Ed Barbante, incorporated it into his class, said Jablonski. That generated enough interest that Jablonski went about forming the club team, which is open to players in grades 9 through 12. He has 17 players on the team. They all are from Mattituck High School and are all new to the sport, he said.

In addition, Jablonski also has an under-12 team in Shoreham that has about 28 players.

And yes, that funny looking ball does prompt some strange looks.

“I get kids trying to throw it like a football, which they can’t do,” Jablonski said. “It’s underhand passing. All I want them to ask is: What is that? Then that gives me the ability to explain it to them and maybe introduce them to the sport of rugby.”

Rugby, the origins of which can be traced back to the first half of the 19th century, is a sport with a language of its own. For newcomers, there are terms to learn like scrum, knock-on, line-out and try. And positions to learn, too, like flanker, fly half, hooker and prop.

But what may be the trickiest thing for new players to learn is that, unlike football, all the passing is backwards and no blocking is allowed.

Jablonski and some of his players say the biggest misconception about rugby is that it’s a violent game because it is played without helmets and pads. “It’s really a sport about speed, passing and positioning,” Jablonski said.

Liam McShane, who completed his sophomore year, plays hooker and fly half. He said he had expected rugby to be a harder hitting version of football, but was surprised to learn that no tackling above the shoulders is allowed. “People tend to think that it’s just people going out there, killing each other,” he said.

Chris Schroeder, an inside center who will be a junior this fall, said he came out for the team after a friend told him about it.

“I’ve just been playing ever since,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s been great. It’s not as violent as I thought it would be. It’s more like a friendly competition. It’s not like we’re really trying to hurt each other.”

Still, the hitting is what attracted Michael Goodale to rugby. Goodale, a forward and loose head who will be a junior in the fall, said the physicality is his favorite aspect of the sport. “You have to be tough,” he said. “It’s not for the weak, that’s for sure.”

A good deal of conditioning is involved since the action is virtually non-stop. The only breaks in the game occur when the ball goes out of bounds or a major penalty is called.

“I like the fact that it’s a true test of athleticism,” McShane said. “There’s no breaks in it. It’s not like football where there’s a break after every play. You just keep going.”

Jonathan Jacobs, a forward who completed his senior year, said he turned to rugby because he wanted to try something new and “absolutely loved it.” Jacobs said he likes the physical contact, but is also drawn by the mental game. “You constantly have to be thinking,” he said.

The North Fork players got a real sense of what is required to play when they suited up for their first game on June 5. They lost to the Montauk Big House Colts, 45-20, on the field inside Mattituck High School’s new track.

“We played surprisingly well,” McShane said. “I thought we were going to do worse than we did, honestly.”

Jablonski said he was impressed with how his players performed in their debut. Since then, North Fork lost another game to Montauk, 36-10. Jablonski expected to play another game in East Hampton, and then hoped to play in a tournament in East Hampton on July 11 with teams from Rye, Pelham, Play Rugby USA and Montauk.

Looking further ahead, he hopes to enter a team in the New York Rugby Union’s high school league that will play a nine-game schedule next season.

Jablonski’s connection to rugby started as a player. A graduate of Mattituck High School, he played for the Montauk Sharks for about 10 years, and twice competed in national championship games.

What’s the best thing about rugby?

“It’s like a fraternity,” he said. “Wherever I go, whatever town I go in, I can always ask where the local rugby [team] is, and I’m welcomed with open arms.”

Some of the players drawn to rugby have become hooked to the sport.

“It’s a ball. That’s the best way to describe it,” McShane said. “It’s honestly the best sport I ever played. Everyone gets a chance to tackle people, everyone gets a chance to score and everyone gets a chance to run with the ball.”

When Jablonski called a halt to a practice on a warm, humid day earlier this month, the players, who looked like they were having fun, seemed disappointed to have to call it a day.

Afterward, Jacobs was asked if it was as much fun as it looked.

“More fun, actually,” he said, sounding like an advertisement. “Try rugby, it’s awesome.”

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