Kevin Bunce Is Tending the Rugby Flame

Scholarships will come faster than you know
Kevin Bunce Jr. of East Hampton, with the ball above, and Eddie Arens of East Islip were, with their Section XI Warrior teammates, thrown into the fire at the New York 7s tournament on Randalls Island last weekend. Anthony Senft

There were no men’s rugby games here this fall, for the first time in a very long time, though Kevin Bunce, who’s been overseeing Section XI Warriors youth sides that have on them players from East Islip, Babylon, Mount Sinai, Shoreham, and the North Fork, as well as from Sag Harbor and East Hampton, is pretty sure that men’s rugby — though probably no longer strictly under the Montauk Rugby Club’s aegis — will live again in the form of a countywide powerhouse.

A hastily gotten together Warriors side played last weekend in a highly competitive 7s tournament on Randalls Island in New York City, going 0-3 in U-19 pool play, though Bunce said during a conversation at The Star Monday morning that “it’s just a matter of time, a little more practice for them — they love it, they’ve just got to work on the fine points. Sevens is a tough game. You may be in shape, but catching and passing and positioning mean a lot. If you go in to help out on a tackle, as you might in football, for instance, the other team will take full advantage of the overlap, the ball will get out to the wing, and they’ll be gone.”

Adhering to international rules, the youth sides on Randalls Island were U-19 rather than U-18, as is the case in the United States, which meant, said Bunce, that “our very young team — we only have two seniors, mostly sophomores and freshmen — went up against teams whose players were stronger and more experienced. We were thrown into the fire. Still, we did pretty well once we got the hang of it.”

The Brindle brothers, Hudson and Cooper, who live in Sag Harbor, “had never played in a rugby game before, though their father, an expat from Britain, used to play for Old Blue. . . . All the football players, the Brindles and the two backs from Babylon, Colin Winter and Dylan Moretti, said rugby tackling, where you put your shoulder into the ball carrier’s midsection, keeping your head out — we say ‘ear to the rear’ or ‘cheek to cheek’ — is the way they should do it in football.”

“The first team we played, Northeast Academy, a select side from Boston, beat us six tries to two. They didn’t run us over, our guys tackled hard, but we were often out of position. Fourteen minutes of 7s isn’t as easy as our kids, who all were fit and fast, thought. They were laughing at the beginning, but they weren’t after three or four minutes of it.”

Rugby New Jersey was the Warriors’ second-round opponent. “We played much better in that one. I think New Jersey won four tries to two — 26 to 12. But again, we were outmatched a little physically and experience-wise. That was true throughout the day. I think the tournament’s directors put us in with three of the strongest teams so that only one of them would come out of pool play into the semifinals. We played Mount Saint Mary’s of Maryland’s high school team in our last game. Brandon [Johnson, who played that day for Stony Brook University’s side] went there. The college coach coaches the high school team too. He was all over three or four of our guys afterward. . . .”

Rugby is proving to be “a great way for these young kids to get college scholarships,” said Bunce, who can cite as examples Brandon Johnson, Johnson’s first cousin, Jordan, who’s at New England College in New Hampshire now, and Josh King, who has played at American International College in Springfield, Mass. “I know the coaches at these schools and they’ve got top-notch programs. We’re not sending them to crummy schools. . . . We’ve also been taking these kids to camps, where they’ll be seen.”

Bunce said his charges, in whose number is his son, Kevin, will practice on Sunday afternoons, weather permitting, this winter, either here at Herrick Park or in Calverton. And in the spring, “We’ll play an eight-game schedule, against high schools in the metro area. They’re moving us up a division, but that’s good. I like having the kids play up, that’s how you learn. And the scholarships will start to turn up, faster than you know.”

As for Brandon Johnson, an East Hamptoner who reportedly hopes to play professionally, Bunce said he’d like to “send him to Old Blue. They’ve got seven guys who play 15s on the Eagles, the national side, and three who play on the Eagles’ 7s side. Now’s the time. He’s 20. This is his shot. Either he picks it up or lets it go by the wayside. He can do it, but you’ve got to want it. I think he does.”

The Section XI Warriors, with Brandon Johnson, who played for Stony Brook University that day, posed following the New York 7s tournament on Randalls Island Saturday. Aaron Taylor