Published in The Bulletin

By Matt Grahn

Rugby is the newest sport in the Rose City.

Norwich Youth, Family and Recreation started a free rugby program for boys aged 13-19 in January. The next introductory clinic will be on Sunday, Feb. 18 at noon at Kelly Middle School, Assistant Program Coordinator Jake Dilts said.

This program is funded by a $25,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, distributing funding from the state’s Social Equity Grant.

Dilts, who recently started working for the city, played rugby in high school and college, and also coached college-level rugby, including at American International College in Mass. and Post University in Waterbury, he said.

Originally, Dilts was a football lineman while in school, so he never got the ball intentionally. Rugby is more like soccer, as everyone gets to play offense and defense, and has a chance at the ball. Rugby also supports more body types, he said.

“In football, they’ll say you're too small, or you’re too big and not fast enough,” he said. “In rugby, there’s a position for you.”

Rugby offers teens a chance to gain social skills and leadership skills, while being different from your typical sports, Youth, Family and Recreation Services Director Erin Haggan said.

The program

The introductory clinics introduce teenagers to the game. Formal practices will start after the clinics, and the program participants will start playing other high school teams from Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts by the end of the spring. Playoff eligibility in the Connecticut Rugby League won’t start until next year, Dilts said.

The clinics are non-contact, but rugby will be a contact sport once the team, the Rose City Raptors, starts playing other teams. Parents will be kept informed, Dilts said.

“There’s no reason to rush this program, “he said. “We want these kids fully understanding the game and be comfortable tackling.”

Rugby is a good fit for Norwich because it requires fewer supplies than football, hockey or lacrosse. The program will cover the costs for rugby balls, jerseys and other equipment, Dilts said.

“You can get a ball, and kids can start playing,” he said. “It’s a good sport that doesn’t exclude people for money issues."

The first clinic was held in January, in which nine high school students attended. The Shoreline Rugby Team, a high school team based out of Deep River, brought their players and helped get the Norwich players up to speed. Everyone had the chance to socialize over pizza afterwards, Dilts said.

“It was a really fun event, and by the end of the day, they were playing two-man touch rugby,” he said.

Jennings Field will be the Raptors' home turf once they start playing games, Haggan said.

Growing rugby in Norwich

The goal is to have a team large enough to play seven-on-seven or 15-on-15 games. Dilts hopes to see 15 to 20 students attending the next clinic. If the rugby program is successful, Dilts wants to start a team for high school girls and a team for younger children, he said.

“The sky’s the limit,” Dilts said.

Norwich Community Development Corporation President Kevin Brown, who also played rugby for West Point, secured two scholarships from the Army Rugby Legacy Foundation for program participants to attend West Point's Rugby Camp this summer. They will be awarded later this year, he said.

"I'm proud to support these kids," Brown said.

As West Point was a tough opponent for Dilts in his college coaching days, the players can learn a lot from them, he said.

"You're not going to find a place that studies strategy more than West Point," Dilts said.

Other locals have offered to help the rugby program with coaching and other ways. The new program is being taken seriously, Haggan said.

"We found that several Norwich Public Schools employees and local professionals grew up playing rugby, so when they heard about the program, they were excited," she said.

Anyone who wants to join the rugby program, or has questions, can contact Dilts at 860-823-3791 or email him at