Springfield College Rugby makes Irish eyes smile

Josh Hillman
Staff Writer
@Joshillman_

josh hillman rugby
Photo courtesy of Drew Broffman.

A man sits on a turf field, crouched over his toes and leaning forward on his hands. The world is silent for 10 seconds before he explodes, basking with his teammates in uncontrollable joy.

It was Nov. 14, 2015, the day that the Springfield College men’s rugby team defeated Salve Regina 14-12, earning their spot in the national tournament. Thirty-five players rushed the stands where friends and family screamed with excitement.

Coach James Collins pulled his team from the audience and back on the field to shake hands with their opponents. His men had made history as the best rugby club to ever come out of Springfield, but Collins wasn’t about to ignore his sense of classic sportsmanship.

Rugby started in England in 1823 when a man by the name of William Webb Ellis caught a soccer ball and decided to run with it. The players that day saw his act as an opportunity to invent a new sport.

In Ireland in 2001, Collins was 10 years old and playing soccer for a local team called the Castle Knock Celtics. Soon he would outgrow the sport and learn that his size was better suited for the game of rugby.

“I didn’t like it at first,” Collins said. “I wasn’t very good at it. Then my coach took me aside and told me to just kick the ball forward and run as hard as I could. I ran right into another kid and knocked him over.”

From that point on Collins would pursue rugby with an overwhelming persistence, a quality that would shape the rest of his life.

In a sense, he was stepping into a dynasty started by his father, Barry Collins. His family was notorious for breeding rugby players out of their home in Castle Knock, Ireland. The town happens to be a suburb of Dublin (the city which conceived Ireland’s first rugby team in the 1850s).

A long line of Collins’ developed their athletic and academic skills at Belvedere College, a secondary school for boys. James, along with both his older brothers, attended Belvedere following the footsteps of their father and his brothers. There it was mandatory for all 1,000 or so members of the student body to learn the game of rugby, and they had 25 teams available to ensure just that.

Due to his family’s tradition, James felt as though he were born with a rugby ball in his hands. “When I was a kid I remember being in a walker at these games,” he said.

Behind that walker was Barry who would later encourage James to play for Coolmine RFC. His aim was to help his third son integrate with his rugby peers, make friends, and ease his transition into Belvedere. As a lawyer, Barry only missed two games throughout James’ entire athletic career.

“He was a bit at sea at the beginning,” Barry said. “I think he found the physical side a bit strange. But he had gone from soccer where the ball was on the ground and it wasn’t particularly physical to a situation where he had to tackle. Then I think he realized that he was bigger than most of the guys and it dawned on him that this was his game.”

Rugby became Collins’ passion, falling second to none. As a teenager in the classroom, he fantasized about playing in the Irish professional league.

“I was a bad student,” Collins said. “I was never a trouble maker but I just didn’t care because I was focused on rugby.”

The schoolboy was growing into the best rugby player in his family. At 15, Collins experienced his greatest athletic achievement and his greatest defeat all within a single match.

It was Jan. 31, 2007, a date that is stained in Collins’ memory. Belvedere was favored to beat their rival, Black Rock, in the Junior Cup championships. “The tradition in the school is that you always wear a jersey but you never wear a jersey with a crest until you make the cup team,” Collins said. “I was the only person in my family to get the crested jersey.”

The nation was watching as 15 Belvedere boys took their positions in attempt to realize their dreams on the rugby field. In the following 80 minutes the country would witness a brutal defeat as Collins’ team lost, 30-3.

Ireland’s competitive culture is so strong that Collins didn’t show his face for a whole week after his loss. When he finally came around, many schoolteachers begrudged him for what they considered to be a poor representation of Belvedere rugby.

One individual had a different response upon Collins’ return. Irish Olympian and Springfield College Alumni, Phil Conway was both Barry and James’ PE teacher at Belvedere. He would become Collins’ idol after sending the team a letter including Theodore Roosevelt’s The Battle of Life. It is not the critic who counts, the letter reads.

Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming….

Collins’ mother holds on to the original letter her son received that day. In preparation for seasons to come, Collins would harness this motivation and persist on becoming the best rugby player he possibly could.

On holidays, when his peers would travel to bars in France, Collins stayed home and trained. “I might not be the most skillful player but I’m going to work harder than the other people,” Collins said.

He commuted to Blanchardstown where he lifted weights at Total Fitness Gym six days a week and ran in Phoenix Park four days a week. Sometimes he would jump the wall of his school’s rugby field and run there.

The more time he spent working out, the quicker his interest grew for strength and conditioning. This new passion started to take priority over rugby after Collins endured a series of injuries.

With a hurt lower back, a broken right leg, surgery on his left foot, and a neck injury that temporarily restricted the mobility of his head, Collins was faced with a tough decision. “I came back and expected to be 100 percent, but I wasn’t,” Collins said. “I had lost it.”

Towards the end of his career at Belvedere, Collins started to improve his studies and got accepted into the Institute of Technology Tallaght. Two years after attending the University, Collins quit his rugby club for good. Though he still craved the sport, his body had been through enough.

He would complete his undergraduate studies in 2014 with one goal in sight, a master’s degree in strength and conditioning at Springfield College. The United States offered better opportunities in the field, and Springfield was world famous in the major.

Collins applied and would call the department countless times in hopes to earn acceptance. “It probably got to the point where they saw the caller I.D. read “Ireland” so they chose to hang up,” he said.

One day, Springfield College graduate and world-renowned strength coach Michael Boyle traveled to Ireland to speak at a panel. Collins showed up and by the end of the event Boyle had invited the young, ambitious Irishman out for a drink.

Impressed with Collins, Boyle said that upon his return to the States he would contact the strength and conditioning department in Springfield and put in a good word for him. Within a week Collins sent an email to his new friend. Mr. Boyle, the email reads.

I just received an email from the graduate admissions from Springfield College to notify me that I was accepted into the program. I am completely speechless! Thank you so much [for] contacting them for me. What you did was clearly the deciding factor for me getting my place. Getting into this program means so much to me and I will be forever grateful for what you have done. I don’t know how I can re-pay you but if anything ever comes to mind, please let me know!! I cannot thank you enough! 

Kindest regards,

James Collins. 

Boyle replied with a short, yet impactful response.

The best way to repay me is to show up and do a great job. Congrats.

Michael.

A “great job” is an understatement. Within two years Collins coached strength and conditioning for baseball, field hockey, and women’s lacrosse, became the department’s graduate assistant, and coached men’s rugby to nationals with a 10-0 season.

His past rugby career had shaped Collins into the perfect fit for the Pride. “He’s like a brother to us,” men’s rugby captain Jay Bonti said. “But when it comes to game time and we are on that field, we are 35 college students looking up to that man who will lead us to victory, and we have faith in him.”

The rugby team traveled to Pittsburgh to compete against White Water Wisconsin in their first nationals match. They took a blow out loss, 80-15.

“When it comes down to it, yeah he wants to win but it’s more than that,” Bonti said. “It’s not ‘if we lose this next game then this season was a waste,’ it’s ‘be better today than you were yesterday and tomorrow than you were today.”

Collins will graduate on May 14, 2016. He will leave behind a mark that positively represents himself, his family, and his country. The Springfield College men’s rugby players are going to miss their coach, but with the foundation Collins has built, the team has a bright future ahead of them.

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