CRANFORD – The Union County Mudturtles RFC (Rugby Football Club), an active club in Cranford since 1974, hosted its first ever Middle School Rugby Tournament on Sunday at Unami Park Cranford, the home of the Mudturtles.

It was an invitational youth tackle tournament, the only of its kind to be held in New Jersey, and one of a few in the country. The tournament consisted of seven teams from New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, comprised of boys and girls ranging from the ages of 8-14, split up into U12 and U14 divisions.

The teams, Union County (NJ), South Shore (NY), Manhattan (NY), Morris (NJ), Greenwich (CT), and Fairfield (CT), and Rockaway (NY) played four games each. For each win, a team received four points, and in the case of tie, both teams received two points. The two highest point-earning teams then met in the finals.

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In the U14 division, it was Fairfield and Greenwich who competed in the championship round for the Chancellor’s Trophy, which saw Fairfield pull away with a 26-12 victory.

“It was awesome,” said Fairfield head coach Ben Bratton. “They put together a tremendous tournament. The competition was fantastic, the kids had a great time, and we hope to make this an annual thing. It was a beautiful experience.”

John McElroy, the Mudturtles U12 head coach, and Owain Rees, the U14 Mudturtles head coach, played huge roles in getting the tournament off the ground. Both believe that while high school rugby gets attention, it is the younger age groups that get overlooked.

“Rugby is growing in America for sure,” said Rees. “There’s a lot of attention for U16 and U18 rugby, but there’s nothing like this for these age groups. In my opinion, they need to have this. They need to feel special about something. This isn’t just some throwaway thing. The parents see this as a fun day too.”

Although the popularity of rugby is increasing, there remain people who are skeptical of the sport and the potential dangers. In light of the ongoing concussion problems in football, towns have seen the participation rate in youth leagues such as Pop Warner dramatically decrease, and in some cases, multiple towns have to join together just to field one team.

The differences between football and rugby are fairly obvious, with the most being that rugby includes less protective gear. Though less gear may sound more dangerous, McElroy and Rees believe it leads to rugby athletes making more wise decisions with tackling and head placement.

“I like to tell parents that (in football) these kids have all those pads on and they’re not thinking about their own personal safety. They’re just running into each other like rams,” said McElroy. “If they don’t have all of that stuff on, they’re a little more aware of what’s going on with their bodies and how they’re going to tackle.”

“Everyone talks about concussion. We played eight games this year, plus four today. Not one concussion,” added Rees. “This is my third year coaching the U14s, and in all of that time I’ve only had one player with a head injury.”

If a head injury is to occur, there is a very strict protocol set by the Mudturtles before a player can return. The protocol includes a minimum of two weeks of no activity, followed by doctor’s clearance, before returning to practice and/or game action.

Just like football, rugby offers non-contact flag leagues. Rugby flag leagues range from grades K-8, with four different age groups.

You can learn more from the Mudturtles website at http://www.mudturtlerfc.com.