Youth rugby team finds abbreviated way forward amid COVID-19

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By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer

A high school coach for Eagles youth rugby receives a pass during warmups at a recent practice.

Southborough – At least one local group has made the once incompatible worlds of rugby and COVID-19 work together. Though anxiety and uncertainty persist, the players are just glad to be back on the field.  

“We realized the mental health of people being locked in their houses was not good,” said Ed Gostick, founder of Eagles Youth Rugby. “We wanted to get our community together while keeping everybody safe.”

Eagles Rugby has existed for several years as a growing gateway for middle school aged youth into a seldom played sport here in the U.S.

Ed Gostick tosses a ball into a crowd of players during a recent practice.

Gostick, who grew up abroad and has played the sport his entire life, formed the team to earn his Eagle Scout certification and has since managed to build it into a farm system of sorts for his varsity rugby team at Algonquin Regional High School.

Participation had increased rapidly in recent years, drawing dozens of children from Southborough, Northborough, Grafton and Westborough before the pandemic. 

This year, however, COVID-19 put the typical June – July season on hold. 

An Eagles player tosses a ball to a teammate while running up the field at Neary Elementary School.

“We had done a really good job and we were looking forward to having another really successful season,” Gostick said. “It was a shame to lose that.”

Gostick waited until late July to begin exploring what options he had left before him. He communicated with state and local officials and sought advice from national rugby groups on how to preserve elements of his game while complying with coronavirus regulations.

What resulted is the twice-weekly program running at the Eagles’ typical home outside Neary Elementary School in Southborough. 

An Eagles player takes a moment to breathe during a practice.

“Some parents have been really excited to get their kids back on board,” Gostick said. “But we’ve also had some parents who are concerned about the safety aspect. We’ve been very understanding of that, trying to adapt for people.”

Tackling is banned under new rules. And the “scrums” many envision when they think of this sport are nowhere to be seen.  

The tournaments that normally punctuate the rugby season are gone; the Eagles are just practicing this year.

As players arrive at those practices, Gostick greets them with a contactless thermometer and a jug of hand sanitizer. 

Eagles founder and co-coach Ed Gostick takes the temperature of a player at a recent practice.

During each break in the action, someone manually wipes down the ball with disinfectant. 

Masks stay on at all times, even as players sprint down the field or bob and weave between the two-handed tags that have replaced tackling. 

During water breaks, when players temporarily pull down their masks to drink, Gostick and other coaches make their rounds with more hand sanitizer and frequently remind players to distance from one another.

It’s a surreal, at times strange way to play the sport he and his players love, Gostick admitted. 

An Eagles coach addresses players at a recent practice.

But in a bizarre year that had previously all but erased any hope of team sports, this is at least an incremental step towards normalcy. 

“If we can get a little bit of practice in a safe way, that’s going to make us a lot more ready to hit the ground running when they give us the green light,” Gostick said. 

Photos/Dakota Antelman

An Eagles coach addresses players at a recent practice.