It’s known as a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen. But in Andover, ladies take the field as well. 

Four years ago, Andover High School’s Rugby Club began as part of one student’s senior exhibition project.

What started as a small, completely student-run group has quickly blossomed into a 30-member, co-ed team of students who simply enjoy playing the game.

Co-captain Joe Vano, 18, a senior at Andover High, runs the club with classmates Roberto Reyese and Max Drew.

Vano said that the team-first approach that rugby encompasses is what has drawn the attention of players.

“It’s a complete brotherhood,” he said. “We have a lot of freshmen and sophomores on the team, so there’s a lot of kids that I’d never have met if not for the club. It’s a good way to introduce the young kids into the school and hang out with them.”

By brotherhood, Vano means sisterhood, too. Three of his teammates are female.

The sport of rugby is considered by many to be comparable to football. But there are some glaring differences. Rugby is played with a larger, rounder ball and players record a “try” as opposed to a touchdown when they cross the end zone, earning five points for the score.

While the art of tackling is paramount in both sports, rugby players don’t wear pads. And while football is almost exclusively a forward-passing game, the forward pass is outlawed in rugby. To advance down field, rugby teams must carry or kick the ball and passes must be either lateral or directed backward.

Chris Ranwell is the Andover High club’s volunteer coach. A former rugby player in England, Ranwell said he was approached in 2012 by club founder Chris Newton who wanted to get the group off the ground. 

“He said he wanted help from someone who had rugby experience,” said Ranwell, 50, whose son played hockey with Newton and whose daughter was a classmate of his.

Ranwell stepped in to guide the team, which is part of the Massachusetts Youth Rugby Organization. The statewide organization oversees the scheduling and record keeping. 

He said several students have gone on to continue playing rugby in college, with their high school training giving them the ability to walk onto teams. The sport helps them to get acclimated to the college environment and gives them a way to meet others who enjoy the game, too, Ranwell added.

Andover’s squad practices twice a week to prepare for its club games against area schools. While fundraising efforts foot the bill for some of the team’s expenses, such as buses to away games and jerseys, much of the costs are paid for out of members’ own pockets, with support from Andover Youth Services.

What drives students to pay for a largely unknown club sport, rather than taking to baseball, softball or lacrosse?

“I’m a pretty big guy, so I played football for many years,” Vano said. “The initial attraction to rugby was just touching the ball and making some glory plays — scoring. It’s an amazing game.”

In its first year, the team went undefeated on its way to a state title. Wins have been harder to come by this season. Andover started out slow and found itself on the losing end of its first two games of the year against Cambridge and Brookline, the two toughest teams in the league.

But to members, there’s more to being involved with the club than game outcomes.

“There have been many good friendships evolving from the rugby club,” Vano said. “Since starting two years ago, I’ve fallen in love with it.”

He said the appearance that rugby gives of being “just a bunch of people running around smacking the hell out of each other” isn’t a wholly accurate one. In rugby, more so than other sports, he said the respect players show to their opponents is unmatched. 

“They say it’s a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen,” he said. “There’s no back talking or trash talking. There’s a lot of respect for people on the other side, because they’re going through the same thing you are.”

After games, Vano said, the home team oftentimes hosts a meal for the visitors.

“In America, there’s nothing else like it,” he said.

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