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Packed house welcomes pro rugby to Gaelic Park

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Gaelic Park was sold out last Saturday, but not because of Gaelic Football or a Manhattan College contest.

Instead, it was all about the new professional Rugby United New York team that drew fans and curious onlookers.

Rugby United New York is the city’s first-ever professional rugby team, one that will officially join Major League Rugby next year. Until then, RUNY plays four exhibition games to “give fans a taste of what to expect,” according to the team’s website.

The team was founded by James Kennedy, an avid rugby fan, and is co-owned by professional wrestling legend John Layfield, who now helps run a charity in Bermuda called Beyond Rugby Bermuda that helps at-risk kids.

One of the team’s charter players, Connor Wallace-Sims, had nothing but gratitude for both Kennedy and Layfield for bringing professional rugby to New York City.

“This team is history-in-the-making, so it’s really fun to be a part of all of it,” Wallace-Sims said. “Especially with the likes of James Kennedy as the CEO and John Layfield, the famous WWE guy. So it’s pretty awesome. I’m excited for what the future holds.”

Playing in just their second game as a team, RUNY rolled the opposing Boston Mystic River Rugby Club by a dominating score of 50-0. It was the product of fearless offensive play with an aggressive defensive effort.

Mystic River is a Division I rugby club that before this game never played at the professional level.

The win felt good, said RUNY head coach Mike Tolkin. “We had a tough week with the weather, we couldn’t really practice, so we were a little nervous about coming out here and being able to turn it on and be sharp. The guys were disciplined and did a good job with all of that.”

For Wallace-Simms, lacking practice time was troublesome after their performance last time out.

“We played Ontario last weekend and it was kind of scrappy, so we were looking to fix some things this week,” Wallace-Sims said. 

“Unfortunately we didn’t actually get to train this week, so we came out earlier today and did a little run-through. Obviously it paid off.”

Bringing rugby to New York was far from an easy task, however.

“It took a lot (of work) behind the scenes,” Tolkin said. “Everything from getting the word out to getting money to getting players to getting fields. This was a lot of work from a small group of people. I think everyone multitasking was the biggest part.”

With that said, the soon-to-be expansion team in Major League Rugby is looking forward to the future.

“It’s exciting, I think the players, the fans, the coaches are all excited,” Tolkin said. “The next stage of rugby here is really growing, and it’s in front of everyone’s face. We just have to get better every week and make it more entertaining for the fans. Whenever you win, it brings people out.”

The team may be new to the city, but the roster is chock-full of experienced players.

“They’re a good bunch of guys,” Tolkin said. “They’re mature, they’ve been around the block, and they’re veterans. This makes them motivated, determined, and ready to win.”

Although the team played at Gaelic Park on Saturday, they’re still unsure if that location will remain their permanent home.

“We enjoyed playing here, the crowd was great, the facilities were great,” Tolkin said. “We just don’t know if moving forward we’ll get (Gaelic Park). We’d like to, but it’s a question mark as of right now.”

Regardless of where the team plays within the city, their mission will remain the same.

RUNY continues its exhibition schedule March 31 at Boston, and April 14 at Ontario. It will play its first regular season next year. 

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