Shelton players embrace challenge of playing rugby

Matt Weiner makes a run towards a try.

Matt Weiner makes a run towards a try.

Aspetuck Rugby Club / Contributed photo

Shelton will be well represented when the Aspetuck Rugby Club looks to return to the National Rugby Tournament when play begins this spring.

Aspetuck came in in third out of 2,000 teams competing at the 2021 nationals held last July in Kansas City (MO).

Ryan Periera, Matt Weiner, Anthony McDaniel, Mark Nische, Damien Davies, Edward Grenados, Ivan Lee, Thi-Lei Inthanpanya and Mason Stutheit are some of the Shelton players who took on the challenge of rugby.

“We had a shot last year, we came close,” head coach Ray Weiner said. “We are only a small market team, located in Newtown, and we have a few kids from all around the state. We are beating and playing the best in country. We might win the national championship this year. We return 12 of 15 starters.”

The club has players from 18 area towns in its program. The varsity includes players from Newtown, Monroe, West Haven, St. Joseph, Hopkins, Hamden Hall, and Choate. A team travels with 22 per side.

“We were ranked No. 7 in the Club Division and played the top eight teams in the country,” Weiner said. “We won our first game with Genesis of Utah the No. 2 seed from Salt Lake City. On the second day we lost 7-0 to Southern California Thunder Rugby from San Diego a team that won the whole thing. Then we beat Woodlands Texas Rugby from Houston 18-14 to take third place.”

Weiner said: “There is a level for everyone. Anyone who practices between three sides, varsity, JV, freshman/sophomore, play. There are six coaches, plus former players that know system that return to share their experience.”

In the offseason, 50-60 high school players turn out for practice.

“We practice through the winter every Sunday morning,” Weiner said. “There is no contact, we don’t want anyone to get hurt who do winter sports We do training for eight weeks at the NYA Sports and Fitness Center in Newtown.”

How it began

Weiner, a 1987 Stratford High graduate, played at Central Connecticut State University.

“I played football and wrestled at Central,” he said. “One of my buddies came by and told me to try rugby. I asked: ‘What’s that?’ He told me that it is football without pads. I said: ‘Let’s go.’ I loved it.”

He handed down that passion to sons Raymond and Matt and daughter Jennie.

“My kids were there the first day when the club started in 2012,” Weiner said. “Raymond said to me ‘I want to play rugby, you played rugby.’ I told him I don’t even know where you can play. I went online and saw that Aspetuck was starting in Redding, where it originally began.”

Weiner began coaching the team, now in Newtown, five years ago when Raymond was 10 and Matt seven.

“Raymond (2019) and Matthew (2020-21) are both High School All-Americans (top 25 in country),” Weiner said. “Raymond played USA vs Canada his senior year at Shelton, once in in Tula Vista at the Olympic Training Center and one in Nova Scotia. Matthew was All-American twice.”

Jennie, now a sophomore at Shelton, wanted in on the action.

“Jennie plays soccer and basketball and told me she wanted to start a girls’ rugby team for Aspetuck,” Weiner said. “I told her to round up players. Kally Keesler is coaching them. We have 30 girls after one year. They compete in an elite girls’ rugby division with five teams from other states.”

Aspetuck takes on all comers.

Weiner said: “We play the best in our area (Greenwich, Staples non-conference), Xavier High from Manhattan, Fort Hunt (VA), Charlotte (NC), Vienna Rugby (VA), Berks County Rugby (PA), Royal Irish from Indianapolis, St. Ignatius Indiana and Gonzaga down in Washington D.C. Some teams we meet halfway (Royal Irish, St. Ignatius) in PA. Berks County we play home and away each year.”

Weiner said the club was fortunate to receive support.

“We have great sponsors,” he said. “When we went to the nationals in Kansas City, we flew our top 25 kids. When we go to DC for the Gonzaga tourney we carpool. It doesn’t pay to get buses. Parents don’t want to miss it and are going anyway. It’s a social community.”

Home games take place on weekends at Shelton High, Joel Barlow and Wilton High.

“The only teams we play in the state high-school wise are Greenwich and Staples. Three years ago, Greenwich had won the state championship 11 years in a row. We beat them when the CT League let club and high school compete together. Now only high school teams are allowed in the CT League tournament.”

Lineage

Eleven players on the 2021 team are playing in college. The number moving on to the collegiate ranks was five in 2020, eight in 2019, four in 2018, three in 2017 and three in 2016.

It all begins with the Youth teams.

“We will have about 20 U-12 and 20 U-10 players this spring,” said Youth coach Brad Hoadley. “It is great to have a U8, a U10, a U12 and a U14 team. They play strictly in the state against six other youth teams.”

Word of mouth has helped build the program.

Weiner said: “The kids do most of getting the word out. Rugby parents who played rugby and want to send kids to get the best training come to us. We have four days of practice the first couple weeks then bring it down to three. There is a lot going on in the spring. Kids have got to travel to get to our practices, some are an hour away and they have to keep their studies up.”

Weiner explains the compatibility for rugby with wrestlers and football players.

“Since I played, there is a synergy between wrestling and rugby. There is the double leg takedown for tackling. You can get the right body position like a wrestling shot,” he said. “You don’t have blockers coming at you landing on your legs. Everything you see is right in front of you. With football you have that full head of steam. Rugby you only have a few steps. The collision is not at the same speed. They are right in front of you, so people get their body in the right position.”

He added: “Tackles have got to be below the chest, or your team plays down a man for 10 minutes. Like wrestling you get to know that person. You can become friends for life. It has its own culture. The bond is there with the shared experience. We are a rugby family.”

william.bloxsom@hearstmediact.com Twitter: @blox354