TASTY TIDBITS London Irish pro rugby club pays visit to Hudson Catholic

Three Prep wrestlers, Beltre earn medals in AC; tough state hoop losses

Glenn Delaney, the head of rugby operations for British Premier club London Irish, knows how important it is to draw a fan base for the sport in the United States.
“If you want to have global success, then you do like the Beatles did, coming to the U.S. and playing New York [in particular the Ed Sullivan Show in a theater that now bears his name],” Delaney said. “You have to build from the ground up. We want young kids to pick up the ball and play. We have to interact with the kids. It’s very important.”
So while London Irish prepared to face rival Saracens in a Premiership regular season contest at Red Bull Arena in Harrison on Saturday night, they decided to share their knowledge of the sport with aspiring rugby players from Hudson Catholic High School.
Wednesday morning, London Irish arrived almost in its entirety to Hudson Catholic to give the school’s rugby club a clinic to help them learn the sport better.
“If America can get serious about rugby, I think it would be important in terms of significantly improving our game,” Delaney said. “I think events like this are fundamental to what we do. It’s all about learning the sport better and our boys are happy to engage in conversations with Americans about the sport.”
Some 40 youngsters were given the time to attend the clinic, sponsored by the British Council, which will provide activities and events in over 100 countries worldwide. It was also part of a program started by USA Rugby.
Some of the finest players in the British Premiership league participated in the clinic, although hometown club London Irish has struggled along to a 6-18 regular season record thus far. All of the clinicians are full-time professional athletes from all over the globe.
Plain and simple, this was like the Yankees of baseball or the Knicks of basketball stopping by at Hudson Catholic to provide some guidance in their sport.
Geoff Cross is a native of Edinburgh, Scotland and has been a professional rugby player for the past decade, but only for one year with London Irish. The 33-year-old Cross is also unique because he holds a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh to become a family doctor, but put that career on hold to become a pro rugby player.
“It was important to me to do what I love to do,” Cross said. “For me, that was to pursue my rugby career. That was the path I chose and it was up to me to find out what I could achieve. Being a general family doctor would mean long hours and there would be a dispute on pay conditions. My main interest was always rugby. I was a big, fat kid, so this worked out well for me.”
Cross was happy to take part in the clinic.
“This is great for me,” Cross said. “Kids are being introduced to the sport. Everything is new and exciting to them. There’s a lot of energy. It reminds me of the novelty of the sport when I started playing.”
Cross said that he spent most of the day encouraging the youngsters.
“Rugby is a sport for kids of all sizes and shapes,” Cross said. “Even females play. I’d love to see the sport take off in this country. I think the guys here know the importance of doing something they love. It’s good for the community and to the quality of life.”
Halani Aulika is a native of Tonga who moved to New Zealand at age 17 to play rugby full-time. One of London Irish’s top performers, Aulika used to work in a grocery store, driving a fork lift at age 14, before getting discovered as a blossoming rugby star.
“I used to play rugby for the fun of it,” Aulika said. “It was a hobby. I would follow the matches on television. I always liked rugby and wanted to play. I wanted to sign autographs after matches. Then I had friends tell me that I could make a life of it.”
Aulika said that he loves to be a role model for young kids.
“We can promote rugby here in the United States,” Aulika said. “It’s great to be here. Maybe rugby will grow. The U.S. already has some good players. The national team is getting better. This was a lot of fun. I loved working with kids when I was younger. It means a lot when a kid asks a question, gets and answer and then gets all excited. It’s fun to watch.”
Gerard Ellis is another of London Irish’s top players. A native of England (born in Southampton), Ellis wanted to be a pro rugby player for as long as he can remember.
“I was eight years old when I told my parents I was going to be a rugby player,” Ellis said. “My father said, ‘Go for it.’ My mother was upset.”
Ellis was also happy to introduce the sport to the youngsters.
“Rugby is just as tough of a sport in England as the NFL is here,” Ellis said. “There’s a very small chance of making it. But we have a huge importance here, being ambassadors to the sport, bringing the sport here. I enjoy going to schools. It reminds me of the fun I had when I was boy just learning. I really enjoyed this. It was a breath of fresh air. It makes you remember why you got involved with the sport.”
Needless to say, the Hudson Catholic students were more than impressed by their visitors.
Royaal Jones is a senior at Hudson Catholic who has been playing rugby since he was in sixth grade. He used to play football, but gave it up for rugby and now has a bright future in the sport, trying to secure college assistance to places like St. Bonaventure, Kutztown State and American International, schools that have varsity rugby programs.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to meet with some of the greats,” Jones said. “I still have a lot to learn. It’s also a great opportunity for those who just started playing and we have a lot of those guys here. I got the chance to talk to some of the players and they were great. This was amazing. I was definitely in awe of these guys. Rugby is my passion now.”
Jharid Morrison has been playing rugby for three years. He also gave up playing football for rugby.
“I never thought I’d have the chance to play with pro rugby players,” Morrison said. “To call this a golden opportunity wouldn’t be the right word. It’s unbelievable. It doesn’t even feel real.”
Hudson Catholic Dean of Students Terry Matthews helped to organize London Irish’s appearance at the school. Matthews is the head coach of the school’s rugby program.
“I thought it was fantastic,” Matthews said. “It was a wonderful opportunity to expose them to London Irish and learn about the game. I had been working with them for a few weeks, preparing for the game at Red Bull Arena. They said that they were looking for a school to hold a clinic and I obviously had the school. It was a great fit.”
Matthews said that the incredible participation of the 12 players who came is typical of the sport.
“I think it speaks volumes for the spirit of the game,” Matthews said. “It’s like it’s almost an obligation to them. I give them credit the way they immersed themselves with the kids. It was a little surreal that they were here, but it makes me very proud of the sport.”…
There were four other local wrestlers who earned medals at the NJSIAA state championships, other than this week’s Athlete of the Week Ben Ortega.
St. Peter’s Prep had three wrestlers all finish sixth to earn a medal last weekend. The Kelly brothers, 106-pound Michael and 132-pounder Alec, and 138-pounder Nick Santos all earned medals. It’s a great accomplishment for first-year coach Brian Innis to have three medal winners.
And Union City heavyweight Jonathan Beltre also finished sixth, winning his first round match before falling in the consolation round. Congrats to all four wrestlers for earning medals in the state tourney…
It was a tough time for both the Secaucus girls and the Hoboken boys, who both lost in their respective state sectional title games last week. Incredibly, both local schools had their teams lose to University of Newark in the championship games of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I. We’ll have more on both state sectional final teams next week…
It leaves St. Anthony as the lone local team still playing. The fabulous Friars were set to play Dwight-Englewood for the Non-Public B North title after press time Thursday.–Jim Hague

Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.

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