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CHELMSFORD — Years ago, when he was coaching rugby at the college level, Jeff Parks created informational guides for spectators called “What am I watching?”

Many have seen the sport, whether it was by stumbling upon a match on television on a lazy Saturday afternoon, or actually attending a game. They might be familiar with the oval-shaped ball, the tackling, the complete lack of pads, the scrums, and the fact that the mere mention of rugby coincides with toughness. Oh, and there’s a lot of running, too.

But, as Parks knows, there’s much more to the sport. His task now is to impart that knowledge to two dozen players on Chelmsford High School’s new boys rugby team. And to aid in that process, he created new informational guides that are more like “What am I playing?”

Chelmsford is one of the newest additions to Massachusetts high school rugby, which was officially recognized by the MIAA as a competitive sport in March 2017. According to the MIAA website, there are 18 boys rugby teams in the state and five girls teams.

On the boys side, there are two divisions, with Chelmsford competing in Division 2. The proposed alignments were developed based on the guiding principles of enrollment, strength of program and the balancing of divisions.

Chelmsford started practicing March 20 and has 24 enthusiastic players who have been getting a crash course.

“What we did was start at the beginning and catch everybody up,” said Parks. “Now that they have the basics, we’re starting to work on a little bit more detail, a little bit more technical aspects of the game. The questions that they’re asking makes it seem like they’ve been doing this for a long time. They’re just eager, they’re excited.”

Parks is a local guy through and through. He’s a 1991 Chelmsford High grad and the principal at the Parker Middle School in town. He attended Bridgewater State College, where he was first introduced to rugby, and enjoyed it so much that he played two years of men’s club rugby after high school. After that, he spent four years as an assistant coach at Harvard and four years as the head coach at Bentley.

Last spring, Parks approached Chelmsford Athletic Director Dan Hart and asked if the school would be interested in exploring rugby as a potential sport. They agreed to run a two-week learn-to-play camp last June to gauge interest. The clinic attracted 25 players and was particularly popular among football players.

“A group of kids just really fell in love with it,” said Parks.

Soon after the clinic, now-seniors Clay Casaletto, Patrick O’Neil and Jake Harrison, and now-sophomore Luke Harrison emailed Parks to see what the next step forward would be in getting Chelmsford an actual rugby team. They reached out to Hart, who gave them his full support and later accompanied the students to make a pitch to the school committee, which also jumped onboard.

“In a year, it went from, ‘Hey, here’s an idea’ to here we are today with a game in less than a week,” Parks said.

Said Casaletto, “It all started with the camp last spring and we wanted to make sure we would see it again the following spring. We wanted to make it happen fast because me, Pat and Jake are seniors and wanted to see this happen before we left. Once we got the ball rolling, there were no bumps in the road, it was just a matter of will we get this done in time?”

O’Neil didn’t show up to the learn-to-play clinic initially, but was urged by friends to give it a try after the first couple of days.

“I thought it was fun. I actually thought it was the most fun that I’d had in a long time,” recalled O’Neil. “Everything was new, everyone was at the same level and just enjoying it.”

O’Neil, Casaletto and Luke Harrison also played football for the Lions, and had to alter their tendencies a bit. While rugby is a fast-paced contact sport like football, there are differences between the two.

For starters, there’s the whole no pads or helmet thing. There’s also no launching your body to make a tackle in rugby. It’s all about form, leading with the shoulder and properly wrapping the opponent. There is also no blocking in rugby. In fact, if you’re in front of the player with the ball, it’s an offside penalty.

“It’s just safer tackling,” said Luke Harrison.

Safety first in rugby

Safer is an important distinction in an age when people are rightfully mindful of the prevalence of concussions and brain trauma in contact sports.

Parks has held meetings with parents to discuss safety concerns.

“Right off the bat, the questions that we get are about concussions,” said Parks. “We spent time in the lecture hall last Monday going through how to tackle safely before we brought it out to the field. There’s a program called Rugby Safe Tackle, which is a prescribed program that we’ve been employing here. When you look in Pop Warner right now, they’re trying to teach more rugby-style tackling. We just keep reinforcing that the head is never a point of contact.”

Learning to properly tackle has been just part of the process. Other major facets of a typical rugby match are still very much a work in progress for the Lions, including kicking and executing a line-out, a way of restarting play after the ball has been knocked or kicked out of play past the touch line.

Judging by the smiles and energy at a practice session last week, things are heading in the right direction.