Back in 2009, Cheshire’s Kris Bickell and Geraint Phillips started thinking about the future of rugby in town. Four years earlier, the Cheshire Rugby Club was started to allow high school athletes to play the sport through the Parks and Recreation Department.
“At that time, we each had a son playing on the high school team and kept saying to the coaches that we should start a feeder program,” recalled Bickell. “They said that it was a good idea, so we quickly started working on a flyer with Cheshire Parks and Recreation to get the word out for the first year.”
The program has undergone change over the last 12 years, but has steadily developed considerable interest from the local rugby community. In first through eighth grades, boys and girls learn basic skills and also compete in matches during the summer.
“It has been great watching the sport grow, and you can see the impact of that on the high school level. Looking at the roster this year, I think that more than half of the players came from this (youth) program,” stated Bickell. “Hearing from the coaches, they are getting more kids who have played before. In the early years, many players were just starting in high school.”
The youth program saw an expansion three years ago. While founded as the Cheshire Rugby Club, the organization changed its name to MidState Rugby Club and started accepting more players from the region. This summer, the program has participants from 12 towns.
“We found that we had more and more kids coming in from other areas, so we decided to take away the stigma of just being one town (Cheshire),” explained Bickell. “For a lot of sports, you are only working with kids from your town or school. Most of our players are from Cheshire and Wallingford, but we are happy to also work with kids from around the region.”
While excited for every season, Bickell has especially looked forward to this summer. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, MidState had to cancel the 2020 season and then wait to see what the future would hold for the program.
“It was really hard to not play last summer. Rugby is not the most well-known sport, so to be forced to take a year off hurt the pipeline,” said Bickell. “Coming into this year, we weren’t sure if we would play, but the signs were very good. Once the state started changing restrictions, we were very happy to get to have a season.”
Traditionally, the youth program starts up in March or April, but due to the pandemic, it kicked off in May this year. After having around 70 players a couple of years ago, Bickell said that the organization was able to get around 40 to sign up for this season.
“It is a lower number, but we expected that coming off the pandemic,” said Bickell. “I understand that people are still hesitant about doing a contact sport. We hope to build on our numbers next year.”
Coaches traditionally teach tackling in the older grades, but with numbers being a little down this year, all of the players are competing in flag rugby.
“It is hard to run a full-tackle team with lower numbers, but we are doing an advanced flag program with scrums and line outs,” explained Bickell. “If we weren’t going to have huge numbers, we felt that it was important to build up the other skills, like passing, ball movement, and teamwork. Whatever we get out of this year, we feel that we will be in good shape next summer.”
With rugby being a contact sport, Bickell believes that not empathizing tackling has helped ease concerns that parents had in the past.
“I think our philosophy helps build confidence in the kids and parents,” stated Bickell. “They can see the beauty in the sport before picking up more advanced skills.”
Bickell has found that flag rugby has a different flow of play.
“When a player gets their flag pulled, it is harder to stop running,” explained Bickell. “As coaches, you teach the sport and the kids pick it up."
For Bickell, this year’s biggest challenge was that not a lot of areas chose to have flag rugby after fourth grade. Since many teams only ran tackle programs or didn’t hold a season, MidState scheduled six matches against only one organization, the Shoreline Spartans from Clinton.
“A team from Wethersfield is usually comparable to us, but since they have less players right now, they moved in to play with Shoreline,” said Bickell. “We made our schedule work this year.”
On the youth level, all of the matches are being played as co-ed this summer.
“To the kids at this age, it is fun to have both genders on the field. There are no limitations,” said Bickell. “I feel that a girl playing flag can be just as successful as a boy. It is a very inclusive environment.”
MidState has two teams for first- through fourth-graders. For the older ages, there is a U-12 and a U-14 squad.
With regulations being scaled back in the state, players haven’t needed to wear face masks during matches.
“On the field, the game has been the same,” stated Bickell. “After the match, it is a rugby tradition to share a snack, but we decided not to do that this year, even though it may have been safe.”
This summer, the program has seven coaches working with youngsters. All of the instructors have played rugby before.
“It is awesome,” Bickell said. “The more people you have, the more you can teach the kids.”
While his sons have already graduated from the program, Bickell enjoys continuing to coach young players. This year, he is working with first- through fourth-graders.
“It is fun to continue to give back,” stated Bickell. “Sometimes, it is easier to coach someone else’s kids. It is great to teach the basic skills and get to see the point when it all clicks for the players.”
In a traditional highlight last Sunday, Cheshire held their Annual Players vs. Parents match at Quinnipiac Park.
“It is played with flags,” said Bickell. “I think the event gives parents the chance to get on the field and see that the sport is a lot of fun. It is a learning experience for them.”
This Saturday, Cheshire youth players will attend the New Haven 7’s Rugby Tournament at Quinnipiac Park.
“The teams won’t play in the event, but will be guests,” stated Bickell. “This is a great opportunity for them to see a higher level of play.”
With this season nearing a close, Bickell hopes that rugby continues to grow in the state.
“There is a core of teams right now. One of our missions is to take kids from other towns and inspire them to start clubs in their areas,” explained Bickell. “It is not about getting players as much as it is growing the sport.”