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Pelham Rugby Players Tackle the Role of Coach

PELHAM, N.Y. – After a 25-year career of playing rugby, Matthew Persanis created Pelham Youth Rugby Club in 2008 to pass along his love of the game. And his investment has paid off.

The idea began when parents approached Persanis, who moved with his family to Pelham 12 years ago, at sporting events. Noticing his rugby jacket, they asked whether he played and whether he would start a club.

Persanis was reluctant because he was coaching at Iona College and still playing Division I rugby as a 40-year-old. But the requests did not stop.

“They eventually wore me down,” he said.

The Queens native, who had never run a youth team, brought in Christian Mayo, director of programs at Play Rugby USA. They started with 30 children, and that grew to 90 in four years. Last year, Persanis expanded into a league with teams from Westchester, New York City, Long Island and Connecticut.

The Pelham club has scored success in its short lifespan. The middle school tackle team has won the league championship twice and did so this season with an undefeated record. The middle school and elementary teams have entered the New York City Cup four times and won it twice.

Persanis has a son, Luke, in seventh grade and another, Caleb, in third grade. Luke was MVP of the New York City Cup last year.

As he coaches, Persanis has some star power at his side. Australians Chris Chapman and Toby L’Estrange play for the Pelham Manor-based New York Athletic Club, which won the 2012 Rugby Super League Championship in Seattle on Saturday. The Rugby Super League is the nation's top league.

As an assistant coach on the team, Persanis is responsible for developing younger players. He flew to Seattle on Friday for the big game, then flew back on the red eye to coach Pelham to the league championship Sunday.

As coaches, L’Estrange and Chapman cultivate an understanding of the game among children in a nation where rugby is largely unknown. But Chapman said other sports, such as American football, give the young players a basic knowledge of rugby and a foundation for learning to play it.

“You don’t necessarily want to completely weed that out of how the kids play the game, but you definitely want them to kind of understand how the field operates and just the general basics,” Chapman said.

The children have been receptive to the team aspect of the sport and appreciate that everyone gets to touch the ball without one star player dominating the action, he said.

Rugby players should get started at a young age because it is harder to adjust to the rules as a teenager, L’Estrange said.

“I think that’s a big part, just getting them involved from a young age and ... it’s just sort of getting an enjoyment factor there,” he said. “If they get that, they’re sort of halfway there anyway.”

Persanis agreed: The Pelham club has a spring season and a fall season. It used to have a summer camp, but he cancelled it because he wants his players to try other sports as well.

“This way, they don’t get burned out by the time they’re 10 years old,” Persanis said. “We hope they’re going to play their whole life.”

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