Football’s Loss May Be Rugby and Football’s Gain: Coach

Tweets began to appear locally suggesting that the seniors might think of taking up rugby
An under-19 rugby side served as a feeder for the Montauk Rugby Club between 1993 and 2003. Above, in the team’s debut, Owen McCormack headed for the try zone during a 24-12 win here over a team from New Haven, Conn. Craig Brierley

    No sooner had word got out last week that East Hampton High School would not field a varsity football team next fall than tweets began to appear locally suggesting that the seniors — there are eight — who will not be able to play jayvee this year might think of taking up rugby.

    Rich Brierley, Montauk’s head coach, whose tweet got the cyber discussion going, said during a conversation Friday that the two sports are quite compatible, that the knowledge of rugby skills could well result in fewer injuries on the football field.

    “Both football and rugby,” said Brierley, who has played both (as well as soccer, at the college and professional level), “are contact sports, though football, as opposed to rugby, is a collision sport. In rugby, you tackle, with your arms, shoulders, and chest — not with your head — to bring a man down, not to stop his forward progress. You’re only tackling the man with the ball, so there’s no blind-siding. And not having helmets and pads puts an added emphasis on learning proper tackling techniques.”

     Brierley said that some coaches view rugby as a threat to football programs, “but that’s not true,” he said. “They’re complementary. High school rugby games are played in the spring, not in the fall. At high schools like Xavier, in New York City, or Greenwich High School in Connecticut, and at Iona Prep, they’ve got healthy rugby programs and football programs.”

     Nick Finazzo and Scott Abran, who helped coach last year’s undefeated East Hampton Middle School football team — the first such here since 1972 — were, Brierley said, walking examples of the two sports’ compatibility.

     Finding someone to teach rugby to East Hampton High School students poses a problem, however, at least for the moment. Brierley, who coached Montauk’s Under-19 side here for a decade, developing along the way players like Finazzo, John Glennon, Ryan Borowsky, Robbie Balnis, Matt and Erik Brierley, and James Rigby, can no longer do so. “Charlie Collins said in a text he would have been interested, but he’s living in Boston now.”

     While Brierley demurred when this writer said Montauk, or the Sharks, as they are known, might “capitalize” on East Hampton’s varsity football hiatus, he allowed as how an infusion of young players could well energize the local side, which went winless in divisional play this past fall — a rarity in recent years.

    “I wouldn’t say we’re trying to capitalize,” he said, “but rather that by reviving our Under-19 training, we’d be energizing the football program at the same time.”

    Rugby, Brierley added, “is one of the most popular club sports in college. It’s probably the first thing that any incoming freshman who likes contact sports will encounter in college. My son, Matt, who had had experience here, was able to play right away when he got to college.”

    Asked how long it would take to get up to speed rugby-wise, Brierley said, “Probably several games. . . . We would require a definite commitment from any of the high school kids who decide to come out. We’d have daily practices beginning at 3 p.m.”

    “There are guys here, I think, who’ve played rugby and might want to coach,” Brierley added. “I’ll definitely put out the word.”