Photos courtesy of Ralph Citarella, Jr. and Bayonne Rugby Club.
If you happen to be driving around 16th Street Park and see a bunch of people of all ages—men and women—running around and chasing after an oddly shaped big white ball, don’t be alarmed.
It’s the new craze among Bayonne residents.
Rugby dates back to 388 B.C., played by early Greeks and Romans. In the 1830s, it became popular in schools in Great Britain. In 1857, the first-ever organized game was played between Edinburgh University and the Edinburgh Academicals.
In the 1880s, famed sportswriter and coach Walter Camp brought a form of rugby to the U. S. That was the birth of American football.
Tough and physical, rugby combines football, soccer and Gaelic football. While football soared, rugby sank—until now. It’s gained popularity worldwide; a U.S. professional league was just introduced, and some say it is the fastest-growing sport in America.
According to the website Statista, 1.62 million people were playing rugby in the U.S. in 2017, up from 1.55 million in 2016. Some of those are playing on the shores of Newark Bay.
Rugby became popular in Bayonne in the mid-1980s, around the time a 22-year-old native of Wales moved to the area.
“I came to the United States to play a little rugby,” said Daryn Henry, a key figure with the Bayonne Bombers, which features a men’s team and a flag team for kids. “I knew that there was rugby here. I come from Wales, where rugby is a religion.”
About the same time, a 25-year-old native of Ireland, George Delaney, had just moved to Bayonne.
Delaney ran into the Boyle brothers, John and Michael, both of Bayonne and both avid rugby enthusiasts who told Delaney about the Bayonne Bombers.
“I grew up playing the game, and it was tough to come here and not have the game,” Delaney said. “We had a mix of guys who learned a little bit about the game, and guys who never played before.”
Henry became coach of the youth flag squad while Delaney was the chairman of the club.
At one point, the Bombers featured players from 15 countries.
Rugby has been perceived as a social activity for the beer-drinking crowd. “A lot of people think it’s a frat house situation,” said Delaney, who’s trying to break the stereotype.
He’s teaching some 50 youngsters the finer points through the flag version, without the hard tackles.
The Bayonne Recreation Youth Flag Rugby program features four age groups: The Owls (kindergarten and first grade), the Falcons (second and third grade), the Hawks (fourth, fifth, and sixth grades) and the Eagles (seventh, eighth, and ninth grades).
“Boys and girls play together,” said Ralph Citarella, Jr., a former Bombers player who now coaches kids. “There’s very little contact to worry about.”
Citarella, Jr. is a former high school and college football player who tried rugby on a whim.
“I was hooked right away,” he said. “I went from being a practice squad player to a main offensive player. Rugby is the kind of sport where you have to think as you go along, but once I got a handle on everything, I definitely had an edge because I played football.”
Sean Lukac, 41, learned about rugby while attending Fairfield University.
“I was enamored with it,” said Lukac, who has played in more matches (225) for the Bombers than any other player. “There was a lot of brotherhood involved in it. I needed something in my life, and rugby was it.”
An insurance underwriter by day, Lukac is team captain.
“I’m the oldest active player,” he said. “There’s something about walking off the pitch at 16th Street after a match. It’s a feeling you can’t bottle.”
In 2003 and 2009, the Bombers were undefeated. In 2004, the team made it to the national quarterfinals.
“There have been times when I’ve walked off and said to myself, ‘That’s it. I’m done.’ I say the same thing every year, and then I come back.”
“We’re the envy of others,” Delaney said. “Soccer took 40 years to get where it is. As people see the game, more and more want to get involved.”
The rugby moms set up a Facebook page to help promote the kids’ program.
In July, Bayonne hosted a top-flight tournament with teams of all ages.
“The city came through and helped us in a big way,” said Delaney, crediting Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis, Recreation Director Pete Amadeo, and his assistant Rich Malia.
Alejandro Vargas, 13, is a freshman at County Prep in Jersey City. He’s been part of the Bayonne rugby program for the last three years.
“At the time, I wanted to try a new sport,” Alejandro said. “My mom found out about it on Facebook. I didn’t even know what rugby was. It was really difficult at first.”
Alejandro is 5-foot-4 and weighs 120 pounds. “I don’t think size even matters,” he said. “It’s was more about speed and concentration. I like it because it’s a mixture of soccer and football, it’s complex, and I’ve always gone up against girls.”
Girls Weigh In
Maggie Caley is a 15-year-old student at Bayonne High School.
“My friends were all talking about rugby, so that got me interested,” she said. “It was fun to experience. I kept doing it, even if it was hard, because some of the boys are much bigger.”
Hannah Delaney is 14 and the daughter of George.
“My sister (Sarah) grew up watching rugby down the (16th Street) park,” Hannah said. “I started to learn the game and got more interested in the dynamics. I really wanted to play, even if it meant playing against boys. I like the fact that people of all shapes and sizes can play.”
When Hannah tells people she plays rugby, she says, “They say, ‘A girl playing rugby?’ It’s so much fun that I really forget about being a girl.”
“I think all the girls on my team feel like we can do anything,” Maggie said. “We’re all different sizes, but we can do all the things that boys do.”
In fact, in June, a team composed of all Bayonne girls defeated an all-boys team.
Terry Matthews played lightweight football at Rutgers before getting introduced to rugby through his future brother-in-law Michael Boyle in 1985.
“I never played before,” Matthews said. “I regretted I didn’t play from the beginning. I liked the idea that there was a spot on the field for everyone and accountability for everyone. And after the game, we went out for food and beer.”
Matthews later became a rugby coach and has started the rugby program at Hudson Catholic, where he serves as assistant principal and director of admissions. Hudson Catholic and St. Peter’s Prep are the only Hudson County high schools to field rugby teams.
Matthews’s son Eamonn played football like his father, but in sixth grade discovered rugby.
“I knew that my uncles and my dad played, so I wanted to give it a shot,” Eamonn said. “I realized I had a college opportunity playing rugby.”
In fact, Eamonn became such a good player that he earned a scholarship to St. Bonaventure University, one of the few colleges in the country that fields a varsity team. He became so proficient that he recently had a stint with the United States national 20-and-under team.
“I’ve traveled to Scotland, England, San Diego, Georgia, all because of rugby,” Eamonn said. “For a kid from Hudson County, that’s pretty crazy.”
He’d love to earn a place with the new professional league.
“One or two teams have already reached out to my coach [at St. Bonaventure]. Playing rugby has been the biggest blessing of my life.”
Said Delaney, “I think a lot of kids are realizing now that they can receive a decent chunk of money to go to college to play rugby.”
Added Citarella, Jr., “Everyone is playing rugby in Bayonne. You have this feeling of camaraderie. It has a magical feel to it.”—BLP