Rugby: A hard-hitting, fast-growing sport at St. Augustine Prep

Sean Lenzsch, center, tries to catch the ball during rugby practice at St. Augustine Prep on Wednesday. The team, which will play in the state finals for the fourth year in a row, has begun to attract athletes from other sports.

Sean Lenzsch has played a lot of sports, from football to wrestling to lacrosse.

Rugby is his favorite, by far.

“Hands down,” Lenzsch said. “It’s such a great sport and so many people don’t even know it.”

The sport that combines elements of football, soccer, and lacrosse – and manages to mix hard-nosed physicality with a gentlemanly code of honor – has taken root at St. Augustine Prep.

The Hermits on Saturday played in the state championship game for the fourth year in a row in the spring version of the sport, which features 15 players on a side. They’ve also won a pair of state titles in fall rugby, where each team has seven players.

Rugby’s burgeoning popularity at St. Augustine, where more and more varsity athletes from other sports are participating, is reflective of the overall growth of the sport in the United States, according to Hermits coach Brendan Towell.

“It’s the fastest growing sport in the country,” Towell said. “Lacrosse used to be, but now more and more schools and towns have lacrosse. Rugby is just starting to catch on.”

High school rugby is not sanctioned by the NJSIAA. The sport is governed by Rugby New Jersey, which operates under USA Rugby.

It’s the same in college, where the sport is not sanctioned by the NCAA. But around 800 colleges feature rugby teams, and many of them offer scholarship money for athletes to compete at the highest levels.

Lenzsch, a standout wrestler for the Hermits, plans to attend Life University in Marietta, Ga., the reigning national champion in the highest level of college wrestling, Division 1A. Lenzsch said he will receive a combination rugby/wrestling scholarship.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Sean Lenzsch, right, runs with the ball during rugby practice on Wednesday.

Lenzsch isn’t the only Hermits rugby player who plans to play the sport in college. Senior Devon Matthews, who started the sport in the fall of his junior year to stay in shape for baseball but ended up stick with rugby in the spring, will attend St. Joseph’s and play for the high-powered Hawks.

Senior Steve Goralski, who joined the team after Towell found him on campus tossing around a football with friends, will attend Loyola of Maryland and play rugby, too.

“I wasn’t even sure what I was going to do,” Goralski said. “I wasn’t even sure I was going to go to college. But now I’m going to a good school and I’m going to play rugby. The sport has opened up so many things for me.”

St. Augustine is one of five private high schools in New Jersey that offer rugby. along with Delbarton, Hudson Catholic, Christian Brothers Academy, and St. Peter’s Prep. Those are the teams that compete in Rugby New Jersey’s Gold Division and vie for a state title at the high school level.

Earlier this spring, St. Augustine traveled to Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland for three clinics and participated in three matches against clubs in countries where the sport is more popular.

“All they were saying over there is that, ‘If the Americans ever catch up in this sport, we’re in trouble,’ ” Towell said.

Towell said there are myths about rugby, the main one being that the sport is more dangerous than, say, football or soccer.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Players run a tackling drill during rugby practice at St. Augustine on Wednesday.

“People think it’s just smash-mouth, backyard football,” Towell said. “But it’s not like that at all. It’s much more technical, and while there’s hitting it’s a lot more controlled than people realize.

“A lot of people just don’t ‘get’ rugby. I tell them it’s like if you don’t get a joke and then I explain it to you and you see the pattern and then you get it.”

Towell said his team has had “zero concussions” this season.

Towell also said that rugby, while a physical game, is governed by a code that discourages cheap shots, trash-talking with opponents, or complaining to the referees.

“The coaches aren’t even allowed to  talk to the ref,” Towell said. “It’s only the captains that can talk. I tried to say hello to a ref one time and he was like, ‘No, just the captain.’”

Towell also said it’s part of the rugby culture that the home team always will host a postgame meal with the visiting team, encouraging sportsmanship.

“There’s a famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill, ‘Soccer is a gentlemen’s game played by hooligans and rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen,’ ” Towell said.

Goralski likes the physicality of the sport but stresses, “It’s a gentleman’s sport, that’s what rugby is.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Players run a tackling drill during rugby practice at St. Augustine on Wednesday.

The team’s web site features a quote from Pope Francis on rugby: “It’s a tough sport, a lot of physical contact, but there is no violence. There’s great loyalty, great respect. Playing rugby is tiring. It’s no easy walk. And I think it’s useful to strengthen character, and one’s will.”

St. Augustine began a rugby team in 2009. The first squad had around 17-20 players, most of whom were novices to the sport.

“One of our first seasons, we didn’t win a game and we didn’t score a point,” Towell said. “The next year we were .500 and the next year we were in the state finals.”

Rugby has attracted athletes from other sports at the prestigious prep school, which is known for its powerful sports programs.

Matthews said his mother, Kim, signed him up without his knowledge.

“I didn’t even know what it was,” Matthews said. “She said, ‘You’re playing.’ I liked it so much I gave up baseball.’”

Senior Matt Compton was a lineman for the football team and plans to play that sport at Fairleigh-Dickinson. He decided to come out for rugby for the first time this spring.

“In the beginning it was confusing,” Compton said. “But now I love it.”

Compton said that as a lineman in football, he spent his time clearing the way for others. In rugby, he gets a chance to carry the ball.

“I can break ankles,” Compton said. “I’m using moves I watch Tru [Robinson] and Kyle [Dobbins] do on the football field.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Rugby players practice at St. Augustine on Wednesday.

“In football, I only got to block. In rugby, I get to run the ball, do a mix of everything. I heard I could run the ball and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m doing it.’ ”

In a match in Scotland, Compton was named “man of the match” by the Scotish coaches.

“They couldn’t believe he just started playing the sport this year,” Towell said.

Rugby matches are divided into 35-minute halves, with a running clock. The sport is nonstop, like soccer.

“That’s the thing, without stoppages these guys have to be in such great shape,” Towell said. “It really gets them in shape for other sports.”

A “touchdown” in rugby is called a try. And the player must touch the ball down in the end zone for the score to count.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Players prepare for rugby practice at St. Augustine on Wednesday.

A try is worth five points. After the try, teams get the chance to kick a conversion between uprights, and those are worth two points.

“There’s no rush or blocking the conversion,” Towell said. “In fact, it’s understood that everybody be quiet for the kicker. Even the crowd.”

Towell said St. Augustine’s rugby program now features around 45 to 50 athletes, with more and more expressing interest every year. This summer, the Hermits will hold a camp for the first time, hoping to introduce sixth to eighth graders to the sport.

Lenzsch, who placed sixth in the state at 195 pounds as a wrestler in 2017, believes his new favorite sport combines some of the best elements of other games.

“Some people say it’s football without pads,” Lenzsch said. “I see it as soccer with hitting.”