Adam Watts first stepped on the rugby field four years ago as a jittery St. Augustine Prep freshman.
Watts admitted his heart dropped when the coach told him he would start the game. The action looked chaotic to him. Bodies collided nearby. His own teammates yanked his jersey to put him in the proper spot.
"I felt like any given moment I could get hit so hard I wouldn't remember anything," Watts said.
But the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Watts quickly adapted. Now a senior, he's at home on the rugby field.
"You have to learn quick," Watts, a Vineland resident, said, "and I was a quick learner. I said this is a sport that I'm built for."
St. Augustine Prep, located in the Richland section of Buena Vista Township, is one of five New Jersey high schools that field a rugby team. The game is physical. Teams play once week. The players don't wear pads.
The Hermits began their program in 2009 because they were looking for a spring sport to add. Many of St. Augustine's other spring sports - most notably baseball and lacrosse - feature specialized athletes. Those teams are hard to win a spot on. Rugby welcomes everyone. The Hermits have 35 players on their rugby roster.
"I get a lot of seniors come out after they figure out they're not going to play Division I football, soccer or lacrosse," Hermits rugby coach Andy Lewis said. "They realize the other sport isn't going to happen for them or they want a change of pace."
Lewis also has athletes who never played any sport. He just wants players who won't quit. No one gets cut.
"If I get a kid who wants to learn and has a giant heart, there's a spot for him," he said.
The sport also provides students with opportunities for the future. Several St. Augustine graduates are playing in college, as many schools field rugby teams, at least on the club level.
Some colleges, such as Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and New England College in New Hampshire, offer scholarships.
Schools that do not offer scholarships will help talented rugby players gain admission to their school.
It is difficult to gauge how popular high school rugby is nationwide. The sport is not listed on the participation surveys of the National Federation of State High School Associations. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which runs most of the state's high school sports, does not sanction rugby.
The latest high school top-25 ranking of Rugbymag.com lists teams from Utah, California, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Rugby is very much a part of the athletic world of the prep schools in and around Philadelphia.
St. Augustine played St. Peter's Prep (Hudson County), Delbarton (Bergen County), Christian Brothers Academy (Monmouth County) and Salesianum in Wilmington, Del., this spring.
The Hermits play on the practice football field. The games have a festive feel. St. Augustine cooks hamburgers and hot dogs and often feeds the visiting team because they traveled a distance for the match.
The Hermits are 0-5 this season but they often face more experienced teams.
"We were in every game," Lewis said. "We could have won every game. Everybody's about wins and losses, but to me, if the kids are learning, getting better and having fun, that's a win."
The object of the game is to score points by grounding the ball in the other team's in-goal area - the equivalent of scoring a touchdown in football and placing the ball on the ground in the end zone. Points also can be earned by kicking the ball over the upright and through the goal posts. High school teams play two 35-minute halves. The action never stops. There are no timeouts.
To the casual observer, rugby is best known for its scrum where players hook arms, lower their heads and then fight for possession of the ball with their feet.
"The whole time (in the scrum), all you're thinking about is pushing and trying to get that ball," senior Dave Cipoloini of Brigantine said.
Almost no one enrolled in St. Augustine with the idea of becoming a rugby player. Most Hermits stumble onto the game.
As a freshman, Watts noticed a poster of a St. Augustine rugby player on the wall of the school gym and decided to come out for the team. Cipoloini became interested in rugby when he attended a St. Augustine open house as an eighth-grader.
Senior Ryan Halfpenny of Port Republic said people are shocked when he tells them he plays rugby.
"They look at you like you're crazy because it's football with no pads and just a mouth guard," he said.
Even Lewis became involved in the Hermits' program by accident. He took his son to visit St. Augustine at an open house four years ago.
Lewis saw some students throwing around a rugby ball. He had played at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. He struck up a conversation with the students, who told him they needed a coach. Lewis became an assistant and is now the head coach. His son, Drew, now a sophomore, doesn't even play rugby. Drew plays lacrosse.
"I'm at the Prep as much as my son," Lewis said with a laugh.
The rugby players are easy to spot at the school. They're the ones limping to and from class. They speak with an almost glee in their voice about the bumps and bruises they get.
"You wake up the next day (after a game) in complete pain," Halfpenny said. "But you just love it. It's so much fun."
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