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Sea scrum! Major League Rugby debuts at MCU Park • Brooklyn Paper

Sea scrum! Major League Rugby debuts at MCU Park

Play ball: New York state’s first professonal rugby team, Rugby United New York, is making Coney Island’s MCU Park its home turf this spring.
Keith Killeen

It’s a whole new ballgame for the stadium by the sea.

New York State’s first Major League Rugby team recently kicked off its first full season at Coney Island’s MCU Park, where the athletes will face off against their rivals in games through the end of May. Rugby United New York’s new home in Sodom by the Sea will allow its players to introduce their sport to a new fan base in Brooklyn and beyond, according to the team captain.

“We’re really excited to bring our sport to Brooklyn, and share it with people in Coney Island and everyone throughout New York City, from longtime rugby fans to those who are new to it,” said Mike Petri, who lives in Bay Ridge. “It definitely has the potential to attract a lot of new fans, especially around the Coney Island region.”

Petri led his squad to its first home-game victory on March 15, defeating the visiting Toronto Arrows 24-21. But the team’s season officially started in January, and the ballers already won four of the five games they played across the country since then.

In the coming months, Rugby United New York will battle teams from Texas, California, Utah, Washington, and Louisiana in 10 more games, seven of which will take place at MCU Park — a venue Petri said he and his teammates look forward to returning to following their extensive travels.

“It’s been a tough entry into Major League Rugby — we’ve been spending all of our time away, so we’re really looking forward to being home,” he said.

Rugby United New York owner James Kennedy established the team last spring, when the New York club played a few games in the distant Bronx as part of a so-called exhibition season with nine other squads, which allowed players to practice before they began competing in official matches.

Rugby United New York’s 35-member squad includes full-time professionals and other semi-professional players including Petri, who moonlights as a teacher and basketball and baseball coach at Bay Ridge Prep. And although the captain claims to be the team’s only born-and-bred Ridgite, other members hail from elsewhere in the borough of Kings, as well as from the distant isle of Manhattan, and such faraway places as England and Australia, he said.

The players practice between two and four days a week on Randall’s Island, where they alternate between weight-lifting, speed and endurance sessions, mental training, and video analysis of their footwork, according to Petri. The training sessions emphasize a diverse set of skills because the contact sport — which consists of two, 15-player teams fighting for control of an oval ball that they can kick or pass to their teammates as they try to score points — is so unique, he said.

“It’s a cross between a lot of sports. Unlike football it’s very much a transition sport — similar to soccer, basketball, and hockey — in the way that everybody plays offense and defense,” he said. “It’s a fast, physical game.”

The local athletes hope to build upon their early victories in order to claim the league’s title this summer, which would require them to defeat two other teams in playoff games after the regular season concludes, and then win a final championship match — a challenge Petri and his teammates are ready for, he said.

“We know in our minds that we have a very legitimate chance to be in the mix at the end,” he said. “We definitely have some real talent on this squad, and leadership in the coaching staff. But there’s still a lot of rugby to be played, and we’re very early in the season.”

The New York rugby team’s first game at MCU Park came roughly a week after leaders of the New York Cosmos soccer team announced the squad would stop playing home games at the seaside stadium, and instead take the field at venue in Long Island — a decision that came a year after Cosmos executives canceled its 2018 season, when a court ruled their league could be forced to play in a lower division.

Catch a Rugby United New York game at MCU Park (Surf Ave. at W. 19th Street in Coney Island, www.rugbyunitedny.com). Through May 26. $20–$45.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@schnepsmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.

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