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Rough Around the Edges

British rugby football gets play here



Fairfield Yankees player Dylan Thomas scores a “try” in the corner of the field.

Photo by Pat Philpott

“Nice try” has an entirely different meaning in rugby. On many occasions, the phrase denotes a significant play that results in a goal—or “try,” as scores are known in the sport that has its origins in the United Kingdom and is gaining popularity in the U.S.

Off many people’s radar, yet on the local scene for 40 years, the Fairfield Yankees Rugby Football Club competes in the Empire Geographical Union (EGU), encompassing teams from New York, New Jersey, and the Nutmeg State. The Yankees play at such a high level that they won the EGU Division III title with a 9-1 record last fall and are scheduled to host the Union County (N.J.) Mudturtles in the opening round of the playoffs on April 16, 2016.

“We have a very strong, close-knit team,” says the Yankees’ coach, David Lyme, 46, a native Australian who emigrated to the U.S. a decade ago. “I’ve tried to implement a style of running rugby. We’ve molded these young men into good players, good sons, good husbands and fathers, good boyfriends, good teammates.”

Lyme’s fascination with rugby began at age five in his native Sydney and he played the sport until he was nearly 40. He has chosen to remain in the game “because I love it. They’re a great group of guys.” Since Lyme took over the coaching duties—on a volunteer basis—toward the end of the 2014 season, the Yankees have won 16 of 19 matches.

Some rugby basics: The game is played in two 40-minute halves, high score wins. Each team places 15 players on the field. Forward passing is not allowed, only backward or laterally. A goal or a “try” is worth five points. A conversion following each try counts as two points; a penalty goal following a foul is three points.

A typical game-day roster for the Yankees consists of 23 players, primarily drawn from the ranks of former collegiate athletes and ranging in age from 20 to 38. Home matches are played at Fairfield Ludlowe’s Taft Field or at Staples High School in Westport. 

Joe Bonano, 24, is one of the Yankees’ finest flankers. He played football in high school and for one season at Springfield College; he picked up rugby while spending a semester abroad in Australia. “It’s a fun sport to play,” he says, “and it has fewer injuries than other contact sports.”

Bonano works as a physical trainer at Fitness Edge, the ballroom-sized health club on Kings Highway Cutoff. During the off-season, the Yankees conduct fitness and weight training at the facility two evenings a week.

For years, the Yankees have taken an active role in making rugby an important part of the youth scene. On one Sunday this winter, Lyme says, they conducted a clinic for some 80 youngsters at Fairfield Woods Middle School. There are two junior teams in Fairfield: mini, for ages six to eight, and middle, for ages nine to 14 (Lyme’s younger son, Jack, plays in the latter group).

Lyme, who operates childcare centers in Bridgeport and Southbury, also serves as an assistant coach at Staples High. (Harry, his older son, is a member of the Wreckers’ squad.) Fairfield Prep, coached by Frank Decker, competes at the varsity level, while a combination Ludlowe-Warde team, coached by Bob Ehlers, plays at the club level.

Sacred Heart University introduced women’s varsity rugby last fall and also fields a men’s club team. Fairfield University offers club teams for both men and women.

Lyme points out the gentlemanly quality of the Fairfield Yankees and, indeed, of the sport in this region. “We’re very respectful of the opponents and the referees,” he says. “After the match we shake hands with the opposing players and we invite them to eat with us.”

The Yankees generally host the opposing club at Anna Liffey’s, an Irish pub in downtown Fairfield. When the Yankees are playing away, the home teams reciprocate with appropriate fare.

Who says rugby is a rough and tumble sport?


NOT A FOOTBALL
The rugby ball, with its flat ends, has more drag as it is passed from player to player through the air.

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