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REDDING — There almost seems to be an unwritten rule that there will be camaraderie among opposing rugby players no matter how far away competing teams travel, or how physical the matches turn out to be.
“You can show up anywhere in the world and it’s like a brotherhood,” said Stuart Meyler, who oversees the Aspetuck Valley Rugby Club’s youth program, a Redding-based club that includes nine Newtown boys on its U14 squad.
Mr Meyler’s observation could not have been more on point when members of the Aspetuck Club took on a program from England that ventured to the states for a ten-day tour at the end of May and early June. The off-field opportunity to interact with young people from another culture was every bit as unique, if not more unusual, than the on-field interaction, for Aspetuck club members.
The Leventhorpe School, a private primary and secondary school in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, north of London, came to the tri-state area to stay with and play against Manhattan Rugby, South Fork Long Island Rugby, and the Aspetuck club. The Leventhorpe program brought about 60 players, plus coaches, to play matches against Aspetuck’s U15 and U14 teams on the field behind the West Redding Fire Department.
The tour was organized between the Leventhorpe and Aspetuck programs when Leventhorpe made plans to travel to the New York area and its coaches were put in touch with the Aspetuck club. The Leventhorpe players stayed at the homes of their Aspetuck counterparts, during the third and final leg of the trip, to get a sample of Connecticut living.
“It’s been a really nice atmosphere. They’ve been really welcoming,” said Simon Lawrence, a coach with the Leventhorpe program.
“It’s kind of a life-changing experience for them. It’s fantastic,” added Jon Locke, principal of Leventhorpe and a coach with the rugby teams.
Scott Baker, whose son Grant is in Aspetuck’s program and is one of nine Newtown players on the U14 squad, hosted Leventhorpe player Heath Squire, who enjoyed the trip — including a visit to New York City to see a Yankees game and explore the Big Apple — despite being unable to play due to a broken leg sustained, of course, in a rugby match.
“I think it’s a great age for them to see other cultures. They get a good understanding of what the similarities are and what’s different in other cultures,” Mr Baker said.
After giving it their all in a game that somewhat resembles flag football because of the lack of equipment (padded head protection is optional), but is far more physical, the Aspetuck players and their counterparts from the United Kingdom socialized and feasted together at the picnic tables near the field.
“They’re all out there pounding each other and when the game’s over, it’s like it’s all forgotten about,” said Newtown’s Chris Conrad, whose son Jordan is in the Aspetuck program.
Sitting down for a postgame meal makes players realize they are out there to have fun playing a sport, said Newtown player Steven Leuci, an inside center.
“It’s a different experience. You get to know them better outside the field when you eat with them,” added first-year Newtown player Jake Holme, a wing on the U14 team.
“It’s really interesting that these guys came across the sea all this way to play a couple games against us,” agreed Jordan Conrad, a scrum half, and four-year rugby player.
Playing against and socializing with players from another country made for an experience different than what the Aspetuck players are accustomed to.
“It’s really fun. They were very aggressive and when we came at them they came right back,” said Ian Kennedy, of Newtown, an outside center in the Aspetuck program.
Mr Meyler, who was instrumental in organizing the scrimmages and cultural opportunity for the young athletes involved, describes rugby like this: “In a weird way, for such a brutal sport, it can be very humanizing.”
Aspetuck rugby player and Newtown student Anthony Yetkofsky, whose position is prop, says it is enjoyable meeting rugby players from different towns. The Aspetuck program’s athletes get to do this without even facing other teams. That’s because Aspetuck’s youth squads include players from area towns, including Newtown, Monroe, Shelton, Easton, and Redding.
They do take on teams from different parts of the state, as well as out of state, though. The U14 squad has dominated its opposing teams and had a chance not only to face a club from out of the country, but to take on tough competition with the English team. Leventhorpe, in fact, gave Aspetuck’s team its first loss of the spring in a closely contested scrimmage battle.
“They play different. They hit harder and have better technique,” said Newtown’s Grant Baker, a four-year rugby competitor who plays hooker, one of the forward positions.
“It was good for them to learn humility in the world of rugby and learn how good other cultures are at different sports,” Mr Baker said.
“These guys have been playing rugby since we’ve been playing American football. They’ve been around the sport,” added John O’Neill, an assistant coach with the Aspetuck program, who played rugby for the Danbury men’s club, and whose son, Brendan, is on the U14 team.
Rugby is a lot like American football, with a bit of soccer, and some other sports, mixed in. The equivalent of a touchdown (worth six points in football) is called a try and accounts for five points in rugby. As physical as the game may be, Aspetuck’s organizers explain that tackling techniques help keep injuries down.
Mr Meyler played high school rugby in California and went on to compete at University of California, Santa Cruz, and is helping the sport grow in interest in Connecticut for the Aspetuck Club, which was formed in 2012. “It’s great for these guys to be exposed to it,” Mr Meyler added.
Rosemary Conrad, mother of Newtown player Jordan Conrad, Mr Meyler added, was instrumental in helping organize the hosting of the 60 Leventhorpe players and in organizing the post-match lasagne dinner at the field.
Aspetuck U14 team members from Newtown who had the opportunity to play against the Leventhorpe team are Matthew Broomer, Aiden Foss, Grant Baker, Jordan Conrad, Jake Holme, Ian Kennedy, Steven Leuci, Brendan O’Neill, and Anthony Yetkofsky.
“It’s cool to know [the Leventhorpe players] after the game, hang out with them, and learn about them,” Brendan O’Neill said of the experience.