“I played high school and college football, and when I was done, I wanted to do something,” said Terry Matthews, founding member of the Bayonne Bombers, Hudson County’s only men’s rugby team. “The funny part is that I worked in the school pub in the off-season and played football in the fall. All the bouncers were rugby guys. They were always saying, ‘You have to play, you have to play.’ But I thought it was crazy.”
Matthews, who just stepped down as athletic director for Hudson Catholic, happened to be at the Caven Point football fields in Jersey City on a late August night as the team got ready for practice. The upcoming season home opener will be held on Sept. 8 at the 16th Street Park.
Jokingly, Matthews told the current team members during an interview, “I’m telling him about when real guys started the team before you guys came along.”
They all laughed.
Matthews, who started a rugby team this year at Hudson Catholic, was one of the original members who started the Bayonne Bombers in 1989 and then left the team shortly after his marriage in 1993.
“It was a couple of guys from Bayonne who played rugby in college and there were a bunch of Irish guys in the area kind of connected and we started a men’s club,” he recalled. “When we started out, we were in the lowest division.”
He soon learned that rugby, which had a reputation as a sport played by rowdy people, was actually much safer and more polite than American football.
“There is one official on the field in rugby with 30 guys, and you don’t have the penalties you have on the field with football, because there is so much self-policing that goes on the field. You know if you do something, it’s going to come back at you later in the game. It’s a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.”
A lot has changed with the Bombers over the years. Two years ago, the team went to the national championships in one of the top divisions, and though the team didn’t win, it is poised to go back this year. It will compete this season in Division 2 of the Empire Union of USA Rugby.
Now most of the current players come from Hoboken, with a few from other parts of Hudson County such as Union City and Jersey City as well as Bayonne.
“What’s nice is that the team is getting a lot of guys who actually played rugby instead of just learning it,” Matthews said. “This is one of the things that has made Bayonne so much better.”
“There is a large international contingent, with over a dozen members who were born outside of the U.S., mainly from Ireland, South Africa, England, Argentina, and Wales,” said club president Tim Skennion.
The team competes against other teams as far away as Buffalo and East Montauk in New York, and Princeton and Union in New Jersey. Off season, the team members keep in shape by running or going to the gym, but preseason, which began on Aug. 2, is pretty intense, as team members work out tactics and rugby skills.
A tough balance
Kyle Mallony of Union City is currently the team captain and serves as forward for the team. Originally from Glen Rock, Mallony said he heard about the league through his boss, who had a friend who played on the Bombers.
“He knew I played in college. I met the guy in a bar who said ‘Go to Hoboken. They’ll pick you up,’ and it happened, and one thing sort of led to another.”
Mallony has been playing with the Bombers for about five years now.
“It’s a tough balance; I work in the city like many of these guys. I work a full day, try to get to the gym as much as possible in the off-season. We train Tuesday and Thursday and play on Saturday. The other couple of nights you just try and go for a run on your own, try to balance with the home life, and make sure the girlfriend isn’t mad at you. But it works out, all of the significant others of the people on the team are all friends, so when we get together on a Saturday for a home game, my girlfriend comes down and everybody else’s does and we hang out and go to a bar afterwards. It’s a good day overall,” he said.
“Rugby is football without pads, more played like soccer without stoppages,” Mallony said. “So you don’t get four downs and run for plays; it’s continuous. You have the physicality of football – there is tackling, but more fitness of soccer or lacrosse. You make a tackle, you get up, you make another tackle. I made the transition. I played football my entire life, and when I got to college, I wasn’t going to play football. But they had a rugby team. It was an easy transition. Someone said, ‘You like to tackle people?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ and I showed up and figured it out pretty quick.”
While football is technically an hour broken up into four quarters, Rugby has two 40-minute halves and usually plays straight with only a few stops for injuries or penalties. Scoring is similar to football, although whereas football a goal is six points with one additional point for a conversion kick through the goal posts, rugby is five points with a two-point extra point kick. Both have end or try zones and have to cross the line, but in order for the score to count, you have to put the ball down on the ground with pressure. They call it a try.
“Originally, in football it’s called a touchdown and it’s the same concept, you have to put the ball down,” Mallony said.
You can also kick a three-point field goal if there is a penalty in the field or you can kick for this at any time during the game.
“I feel football came from Rugby because all of the ideas are the same, it’s just completely different, from a sports perspective,” he said.
Another difference between the two sports, according to former team captain Chris Arnold, is that once a substitute comes on to replace a player on the field, it is permanent. Where is in football, players can come and go and return again.
“So it becomes a big strategy as to when the coach will make the substitution,” Arnold said. With two 40-minute playing periods, fatigue is a big factor. Teams only get a five minute break at half time.
“Rugby is football without pads, more played like soccer without stoppages.” – Kyle Mallony
Arnold, former captain of the team, grew up in South Africa, where he had played rugby since he was five years old. He grew up in Cape Town, but he currently lives in Hoboken.
He came to the United States about six years ago. He played rugby in the United Kingdom, but his brother played for the Bombers.
“So I met a lot of the guys, came over here to play rugby for three months, and went back to the UK and then came back here permanently, and just continued to play for the Bombers and kept my allegiance to them.”
In South Africa and UK he played at a very high level, but he said the Bombers are a very good and passionate team.
A graduate of Sports Science Institute in Cape Town and currently does a variety of sports related training. He was captain of the Bombers for four years at an abbreviated forum called the Rugby Sevens, played generally in the summer, and led the team to four consecutive championships.
“Sports were always my life. My whole family played sports.”
Daren Henry, head coach, is originally from Wales and he said he’s been playing rugby since he was five years old.
“I was born and bred in Wales, and this is pretty much a religion over there,” Henry said. “I played all my school boy rugby in Wales and senior rugby, then went off to school in England and played two years for the local men’s club there while I was at school. My final year when I should have been busy with my studies, I got tired coming home every college break when all of my peers and my buddies were telling me how awesome college rugby was because I went to art school and we didn’t have a rugby club. So I went back my final year and formed one, coached it, and then went undefeated in our inaugural season.”
From there, he moved to the United States and played for about 15 years for another club in New Jersey.
“It’s kind of ironic. I had a career in something else. But the first thing I did when I came here was look for a rugby club. I think that’s one of the beauties of the sport worldwide, it’s a worldwide community or an unofficial fraternity, and players always have a roof to put over their heads and give a place to eat and drink and find like-minded people. The irony was, I was living in Hoboken when I was playing for the other club, slowly but surely got to know these guys even though they were technically the enemy. So when I parted ways with my old club, within a week asking me to help out. I assisted for about a year or so when the head coaching position became available.”