Rugby is traditionally not a prominent sport in the U.S., and yet there is a rich fabric of programs aimed at growing the sport throughout New Jersey and beyond. PAC Rugby is proud to have one of its very own – Rich Beck – working to bring opportunities to play and learn rugby in central Jersey to young people of all ages.
It all started when Beck founded Princeton Athletic Club (PAC) Rugby's U-19 team. In its first year, the squad consisted of just six dedicated players, hardly enough to field a full side but brimming with the enthusiasm needed to launch a program to success. Over the next six years the team would grow, merging with a rugby program in Hillsboro. The team collected a D2 state championship and secured a berth in the D1 state championship against the dominant Union County Mudturtles along the way, all the while instilling a passion for youth rugby in Beck.
"We started the PAC U-19 team from scratch," Beck said. "To see those guys continue to play has been great; some of them have been the core of PAC Rugby. And to play with these guys is the best feeling. It's almost like playing with your kids."
PAC U-19 was Beck's first brush with youth rugby in New Jersey – after playing for PAC and serving as assistant coach for the backs at Rutgers University – but it wouldn't be his last. He helped launch the Bridgewater U-18 rugby team for high-school-aged players. In three of the first four years, the team went undefeated, securing a D1 state championship, again against the perennial winners in Union County.
"Some of those guys are now leading the way at Rutgers University," Beck said.
High school rugby in itself is a rarity in New Jersey. Not many schools have rugby teams readily available for students, unlike football, basketball, or track and field. For many kids, exposure to rugby is unlikely even in high school, but Beck saw an opportunity to start them even younger.
After the Bridgewater U-18l team became part of the Bridgewater Recreation Department, Beck decided it was time to introduce flag rugby to younger children. He launched co-ed flag rugby programs in Bridgewater and Franklin Township, catering to children as young as five years old. In partnership with flag programs in Union, Bayonne, Montclair, and the Jersey Shore, Beck's independent flag rugby program contributes to a network of organizations that host around 700 young players every Saturday in the summer.
"The flag kids are just fun," Beck said. "We get out there and just run around with the kids. Every parent says after the first practice or game 'my son or daughter loves this! Can we have more seasons?'"
The answer was an unequivocal yes. Now, Bridgewater and Franklin flag rugby seasons run in spring, summer, and fall, Beck said. Two of his three children, ages 6 and 8, participate as well. He added that flag rugby is a simple, fun way to introduce children to a sport that is rapidly growing stateside.
"With flag, you can make it such a simple game," he said. "Pass the ball backwards and run forward. It's just a simple game and the kids love it – everybody gets the ball.
"Nobody is keeping track of score; the kids can keep track themselves," Beck added. "Each Saturday, they play three games. Everyone eats some breakfast and goes home. It's competitive, but it's not uber competitive."
The main things are for the kids to have fun, Beck said, and learn a great sport along the way. Beck said rugby has been a transformative sport for his personal life and he wants more kids to experience that as well. Growing youth programs for central Jersey rugby is his way of giving back all that rugby has given him.
"For me, rugby had such a huge impact on my life. It changed me," he said. "You're playing an intense game and it's so much fun, but what you don't realize is the friends you're going to make. There is something about rugby people; they're just very motivated … If you can make it through a rugby game, you can do anything in life. If you can push yourself that hard on a rugby field, you’re going to push yourself that hard in life.
"Some of the best times of my life, my rugby brothers were there. Some of the worst times of my life, my rugby brothers were there," he added.
After being upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, Beck said his central Jersey rugby youth programs have their sights set on an eventful 2021. As the flag programs have grown, Beck said there is a clear need for tackle programs for players to join when they become old enough. In spring 2021, he plans to expand the Franklin Township program to include U-12 and U-14 teams. If the interest is there, Beck added, they might even include a U-18 team for older players.
"If flag rugby grows, there will be more interest in tackle rugby," he said. "It should be a natural progression. We want to continue growing flag programs in other parts of central Jersey.
"Kids need to get things out and in rugby there is so much physical contact so you can get that aggression out. But at the end of the day, you shake your opponent's hand, and you respect the referee."
Those are valuable lessons for players of any age, Beck said. And instilling those values and love of a sport that brought him so much happiness and so many lifelong friends keeps him motivated to expand access to youth rugby in New Jersey.
Rich Beck is a rugby veteran experienced at both the college and men’s level. He is a USA Rugby certified coach and referee. Rich has successfully developed and led high school, youth and flag rugby in central New Jersey and is dedicated to getting youth involved in this lifetime sport. Rich is certified by USA Rugby as a Level 300 coach.
To learn more about the Bridgewater and Franklin Township youth rugby programs, visit www.trynjrugby.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.