Greenwich rugby coach Mike Fina spent Friday morning at home pacing so much that his wife began encouraging him to just go to the field, despite the game not starting for several more hours.
Fina and the Greenwich rugby team are returning to the field Friday for a road game at Darien.
It will be the first game for the Cardinals since May 28, 2019 when they saw their 11-year reign as state champions come to an end with a 20-12 loss to Aspetuck Valley in the title game of the Connecticut State Division I Tournament.
“The whole program is excited to play. I’m excited, the coaches and the kids are so excited to get back out there for a game,” Fina said. “I have just been happy seeing players out and moving together at practice the last few weeks. For these kids to finally get a game, am happy for them. Some of these kids who also play football have not had any games to play in 16-17 months.
No high school spring sport faced a tougher road to return to play than rugby.
But in the past week, games have begun to be played on the boys and girls sides as the sport comes back with some rule changes in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Teams are playing condensed schedules against in-state opponents only with most schools scheduled for 5-6 matches. Greenwich normally plays around 20 games including a tournament in Virginia and the national tournament.
The national tournament is scheduled for mid-June in Kansas City, but Greenwich is not currently signed up to play.
There is a plan in the works for Connecticut to hold a state tournament, though nothing has been finalized.
What is set is a small slate of games for all the schools with rugby programs in the state.
“We all feel for those seniors who missed out on the 2020 season. The seniors this year are thankful for a chance to play,” Fairfield Prep coach Frank Decker said. “The kids are adapting pretty well. They understand this is not a normal season. They know they have to wear masks and understand contact tracing. Unfortunately, none of that is foreign to them.”
Players, coaches and officials are being required to wear masks at all times during games.
Mask/water breaks will be provided each half and the halves have been reduced from 35 to 30 minutes each.
Other rule changes have been made to limit contact time and move the game along.
Teams will have one shot at scrums, and if the scrum fails to stay up, the referee will determine which team caused it to do so and award the other team the ball.
Rules have also put in place to speed up rucks and mauls to avoid prolonged contact.
One of the holdups with getting the season going stems from rugby not being a CIAC-sanctioned sport and instead operating under Connecticut Rugby.
Therefore, Connecticut Rugby had to create new rules to remain in compliance with the Connecticut Department of Health.
To do so, Connecticut Rugby follows the guidelines of the CIAC despite not being affiliated.
“The rule modifications are tough but not unreasonable. No scrum resets is not the end of the world. No mauls is not traditional, but I don’t think any of the new rules will hurt the game,” Fina said. “The masks when competing are the biggest challenge. I had reservations about kids being able to play and breathe during a rugby game and of course the masks getting ripped off. So far in practice it has been fine. It’s kind of sad but the kids are really used to wearing masks for everything now.”
The other issue facing rugby programs this season is the overall number of players being down. Though that is not a problem exclusive to rugby.
“Losing last year hurt rugby across the state,” Simsbury coach Ed Matteo said. “We had 70 kids come out in 2019 an about 55 this year. I expect that number to go back because we had been seeing our numbers go up every year until last year. It was tough because we had one week of practice last year before getting shut down. So we have sophomores who normally would learn the game freshmen year, now a year behind. Rugby is all about minutes played and it was tough losing a year.”
Matteo said most of the players at Simsbury have never played rugby until high school and with no feeder program it may take a few seasons to get athletes back.
“A lot of getting players for rugby here is word of mouth. Kids who play and love it tell their friends and they come out next year,” Matteo said. “Our biggest advocates if kids and parents are apprehensive are the parents of current and former players. They see huge benefits for their son or daughter from playing rugby. It’s a fantastic gateway for kids to meeting friends and learning lessons they will carry with them the rest of their lives.”
Fairfield Prep is in a similar boat with about 40 D-I and D-II players and 36 freshmen and sophomores, down from years past with 110-115 athletes in the program.
Most players at Prep have also never played rugby prior to high school.
Greenwich has a youth program through the OGRCC and routinely gets players with experience, though their numbers are slightly down this year as well.
The reduced numbers has not impacted D-I or D-II teams, but some schools chose to combine the sophomore and freshmen teams this season to ensure they had enough games to play.