Montauk Rugby’s New Wave Is Warmly Welcomed

Jim Abran
Jim Abran, Montauk’s number-eight, anchored a formidable forward pack. Jack Graves

    Bolstered by a large group of athletes largely in their mid-20s, most of them newcomers to the sport, the Montauk Rugby Club defeated the Connecticut Yankees 22-21 at East Hampton High School Saturday. It was a friendly-game win that augurs well for the fall Division II season inasmuch as the Norwalk side finished fourth in the Northeast tournament — Montauk did not make the playoffs — and has been competitive with Division I sides this spring.
    The match was part of the club’s family day, which began with Play Rugby USA clinics for about 35 youngsters. Gordon Trotter, Montauk’s spokesman, and Play Rugby USA’s president, Mark Griffin, said they hoped to have as many as 80 enrolees at Play Rugby’s camps here in August — from Aug. 22 to 26, and from Aug. 29 to September 2.
    Trotter and Griffin, an Englishman, met in San Diego in 2006, and agreed then that Play Rugby USA, which has 3,000 kids playing the sport in New York City, would oversee camps here in the summer.
    “The idea,” said Griffin, “is to have kids playing from an early age and to get leagues going. The younger they are when they start the better players they’ll be.”
    That having been said, the aforementioned tyros, who have come to rugby from such sports as football, lacrosse, wrestling, and track, and who, until Saturday, played in away games this spring, showed their veteran mentors, Trotter, Garth Wakeford, Chris Carney, and Rich Brierley among them, that they are quick learners.
    The Sharks didn’t start off all that well given the fact that the Yankees in the first half frequently stole the ball on Montauk’s line-out plays (throw-ins to a line of potential recipients that usually follow kicks out of bounds). Moreover, the visitors had a very good kicker in Dan Neville, their tall fly half.
    Neville got the Yankees on the scoreboard with a 35-yard converted penalty kick at the beginning of the game, and 20 minutes later the visitors’ fleet fullback, Randy Annunziato, touched the ball down in the right corner of Montauk’s try zone, a 5-point try to which Neville’s converted kick from an acute angle tacked on 2 more points for a 10-0 Yankee lead.
    Montauk mounted an attack of its own soon after — John Glennon, a bull-dozing forward, getting the ball down to within 10 yards of the Yankees’ try zone before a penalty kick by Neville reversed the momentum. Annunziato came close to scoring again, but he was brought down near the goal line and Trotter cleared the ball with a kick out of bounds.
    At the 30-minute mark, Montauk’s Greg Arent, on loan from Suffolk Bullmoose, streaked up the pitch only to have the ball taken away from him on the brink of the goal line. No matter: two minutes later, Mark Scioscia, one of three who played scrum half for the home side that day, put up 5 points for Montauk, touching the ball down in the Yankees’ try zone near Long Lane, though Trotter’s conversion kick rebounded off the left upright.
    Another penalty kick, this one from 30 yards out, by Neville put the Yankees up 13-5 with five minutes left to play in the half, though just before the break Glennon carried the ball in and touched it down for 13-10, and Trotter’s kick made it 13-12.
    Montauk made some line-out adjustments between halves, and, with Glennon putting the ball into play and with Connor Miller, one of the side’s new recruits, going up to snag Glennon’s passes in the second half, things went much better in that phase of play.
    Montauk kicked off to begin the second half, and the visitors’ number-eight, who received the ball, zigged across Montauk’s line of defenders before lateralling to one of the side’s wingers, Simon Hawkins, who zagged the rest of the way. Neville’s conversion kick went wide, however, and the score remained 18-12 in the Yankees’ favor.
    A subsequent 50-yard penalty kick near midfield by Neville tacked on 3 more points with about 30 minutes left, but the Yankees were to be shut out thereafter. Wakeford, a tall, strong South African-born player who is hard to stop, came out of a Montauk scrum near the 22-meter line to score in the 55th minute, and while Trotter’s kick was no good, Wakeford and a winger, Steve Turza, were to combine soon after for another Montauk try, giving Montauk the lead, at 22-21, for the first time that day.
    Again Trotter missed the kick, but in the final 19 minutes the Sharks clung tenaciously to their hard-won advantage.
    Neville had a chance to alter the outcome, taking aim at Montauk’s goalposts from the center of the field following a penalty assessed Montauk, but his 60-yarder bounced off the left stanchion. 
    Brian Powell, Montauk’s young inside center, pounced on a loose ball in Montauk’s try zone with about 10 minutes left, preventing a Yankee try, and in the final minutes the Yankees mounted a goal-line stand after Montauk had been awarded a scrum at the 5-meter line.
    “We threw everything at them,” Rich Brierley said afterward. “They let us substitute more freely than the rules allow. You’re allowed 7 substitutions — we made 12 today.”
    “A little more control and these guys could be dangerous,” said Mike Bunce Sr., who was particularly impressed by Connor Miller’s play in the forward pack.
    Among the most-welcome newcomers, Trotter said, were Miller, Scioscia, Matt Brierley (who had to come out early on after having been kicked in the head), Matt Reilly, Ben Jones, Jarrel Walker (a former arena football player from Bridgehampton), Clifford Clarke (a Jamaican who played with that country’s under-19 side), Randy Steyert, and Scott Abran, who has replaced the retired Paul Cleary at hooker.
    “These kids were in Erik’s class (at East Hampton High School),” Steve Brierley said earlier that afternoon as he prepared a barbecue for the young clinic-takers. “They’re all good athletes. They hesitated in the beginning, but now they’re here. Once you play a rugby game, you’re hooked. It’s a whole new generation of kids. It’s what you wish for. You can’t beat this game for camaraderie. You spend 80 minutes beating the hell out of each other and then after the game you shake hands and have a party.”
    “It all started,” said Steve’s brother, Rich, “with Mark Scioscia and Charlie Collins and Bryan Anderson [who’s out with a broken ankle]. Jarrel Walker [who was yellow-carded that day, but wasn’t quite sure what for] is a good find, though he’s got to refine his skills a bit. . . .”
    Mike Bunce Jr., who plays with Boston’s Super League side, is expected to be here for the Met Union season in the fall. Erik Brierley, who plays fullback for Boston’s Division I side, and who is New England’s points leader, “may stay up there,” said Rich Brierley. “He’s on a career path.”
    When Steve Brierley’s attention was directed to the B side game, where Brenden Mott, a football and track star (jumps and sprints) at East Hampton High recently, was breaking tackles on a 40-yard breakaway run into the Yankees’ try zone, Brierley agreed that “that guy is quick.”
    “Plus,” he said, “they’re young.”
    Given the infusion of fast-twitch muscles, Rich Brierley said that he would propose at tonight’s practice session that Montauk revive its summer 7’s team.