By Gavin Menu
Fans of rugby on the East End are about to have some variety. Starting this June, players from the Southampton Dragons of will kick off their debut season in the semi-professional American National Rugby League.
According to Craig Priestly, the Dragons’ co-founder and a native of Australia, the team will be comprised of both local and regional players, some with experience and some without. Priestly, who works as a trainer at Core Dynamics in Water Mill, played rugby league professionally in Australia and this week said he was excited to get back to playing competitive rugby again.
“Right now the competition starts in June and runs until mid-August,” said Priestly. “We play about eight games and then you have a final series after that. Right now we’re trying to get some sponsors, team apparel and equipment, buses to and from games, home grounds, training, everything. And obviously we’re trying to get players as well. We have a lot of interest so far.”
The American National Rugby League (AMNRL) was founded in 1998 and is now the governing body for the development of the sport of rugby league in the United States. Fans of rugby locally have, for decades, flocked to Herrick Park in East Hampton to watch the Montauk Rugby Club, which plays the sport of rugby union, which has a different set of rules and regulations.
“Everything is different,” Priestly said. “It’s like ice hockey and field hockey.”
To begin with, rugby union has 15 players per side while rugby league features only 13. Rugby league is slightly less physical, with six tackles allowed per possession, Priestly said.
“Rugby union is unlimited tackles and you form a ruck and maul,” he added. “We don’t really have that.”
“The concept of the game is pretty much the same,” Priestly continued. “You score a try, we get four points, they get five points. When it comes to rugby union players playing rugby league or vice versa, it’s pretty easy to play both. I’m going to say rugby league is more of a strategic game. It’s faster and I believe easier to grasp.”
The Dragons will compete in the Atlantic Conference of the AMNRL, which currently features six other teams from New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Virginia. There are more teams out west, but Priestly said the Dragons would stay local for the time being.
“There’s not much funding, so the toughest thing is the travel,” Priestly said. “When it comes to the championship, there is always a tournament at the end of the year in Las Vegas and we’re thinking about mixing up players from each team” in the Atlantic Conference.
For now, however, Priestly is focusing on building the club from the ground up. The club’s co-founder is Teddy Grabowski, who has competed with Montauk and also has contacts locally.
“We’re looking for a field or a park to play in and we’re a Southampton Town-based club, so it’s not just Southampton,” said Priestly. “We’re looking for players all over Long Island. Anyone with an athletic mindset that has competed in rugby, or even football or lacrosse or basketball or soccer, the game of rugby league will be easy to pick up.”