The city of New Haven has claim to many bits of fame. It had the world’s first telephone switchboard and exchange in 1878, it is one of the few deep water ports on the East Coast, and it is the birthplace of the lollipop. What New Haven has no claim to today is a major sports team outside of the collegiate realm. However, there is one organization that is starting to put the Elm City back on the national map — the New Haven Rugby team.
Prior to 1986, a New Haven rugby enthusiast could watch matches played at Yale or Southern Connecticut State, but unless he were enrolled in these universities, he would not be able to participate. The closest rugby club was in Hartford, so it was nearly impossible for rugby players from the greater New Haven area to play competitively. This all changed in 1986 when SCSU graduate Robert Chester, along with former teammates, petitioned the New England Rugby Football Union (NERFU) for a New Haven rugby team. His request was granted, and the “Old Black” was born.
The team started as a Division-III squad but quickly moved up to Division-II on the merit of their performance. This success would continue for New Haven, which grasped the NERFU Division-II title in 1996 and took second place in the league from 1997 through 2001. In 2000 and again in 2001, the Old Black was nationally ranked in USA Rugby Division-II, and in 2002 the team won the Division-II national championship. Because of its continued excellence, the New Haven team was moved into Division-I later the same year.
Even more impressive than the team’s record are the types of players who fill its roster.
“In our club we have guys straight out of college and even four guys who are 40 and over,” New Haven Rugby President and player Pablo Perez said. “We have doctors, lawyers, teachers, construction workers — we really run the whole gambit.”
At one time, the dynamic roster has even included Yale men’s and women’s rugby coaches Jan Pikul and John Broker, respectively. Both played together on the New Haven Rugby team and are still actively involved in the program.
“It is really a tight-knit group” Pikul said of the New Haven squad. “They are not into it for the money, they are in it for the love of the game, and that is the great thing about it.”
Both coaches also emphasized the benefit of participating in club rugby after graduation.
“I encourage all of my players to continue to play after college,” Broker said of his female ruggers. “This is a game you can keep playing for a long time.”
New Haven Rugby is composed of the very individuals who did not stop playing. And they are not alone. Nationwide there are dozens of teams just like the Old Black that are still competing for the love of the game. This growing interest and participation in the sport is being seen more and more, and not just in adults. Starting in the summer of 2002, New Haven Rugby began a partnership with the New Haven Public Education Fund and Urban Youth Elementary, holding a youth “touch” rugby camp.
“The kids love it,” said Perez, the camp’s youth director. “I have been amazed at the positive response from the kids and parents. It has been very pleasant; that is really the future of our club teams.”
Despite the large amount of interest expressed for the sport from the young to the young at heart of New Haven, Yale is always searching for more rugby players.
“A great deal of students don’t come to the practices, because they don’t know the game,” Pikul said. “But if you put the practice time in, many find they do extremely well and love the sport.”