Christopher St. Onge can finally take a breather. After back-to-back weekends hosting tournaments, the Springfield (Mass.) RFC alum can leave the event organizing to someone else.
“Yeah I was getting into my ‘never again stage,’” St. Onge said between tournaments, “but then a couple of weeks pass and I’m already thinking about next year.”
That’s the reaction of someone who is proud of their product, and still excited by the positive experiences and good rugby that occur under his watch. St. Onge hosted the New England Challenge Cup for the boys and girls State-Based Rugby Organizations (SBROs) two weekends ago, and then six days later put on the Eric White Memorial 7s tournament, which was also a Northeast qualifier for the women.
“The Challenge Cup is my baby,” St. Onge said. “Back when [PlayRugby’s] Mark Griffin was still with USA Rugby, he was the youth development officer before Kurt Weaver. We had talked about the Regional All Star Tournaments, and that the Northeast’s location – Pittsburgh – didn’t make sense for New England teams; it’s practically in the Midwest. So when the SBROs came along – Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut – we thought: Why can’t each SBRO have their own select side, play in New England, and attract some scouts?”
Aside from less oppressive travel demands, St. Onge saw an opportunity to get more players into the spotlight.
“The old high school all-star tournaments were under the LAUs, and New England took one team to Pittsburgh,” St. Onge said. “In fact, the last time NERFU attended, they [the boys] won the championship. But that team’s made up of only 23 boys from New England. When each state puts out a select side, that’s 100 boys.”
When the New England Challenge Cup came to fruition four years ago, it was a boys-only tournament, with Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire/Maine participating. Vermont couldn’t attend, so Massachusetts entered a developmental side, an inclusion that encouraged the formation of the JV division. 2011 saw the inclusion of the girls, and in 2013, four teams (Massachusetts, Capital District, Connecticut and Vermont) competed toward the title.
“But it’s one thing to have an idea,” St. Onge was quick to disperse the adulation. “The only reason this event exists and functions is because MYRO [Massachusetts Youth Rugby Organization] sponsors it. In reality, we lose money every time we host the tournament – although every year we close the gap – but we’re [MYRO] is lucky to have a little extra cash to fund it. The board thinks it’s a worthwhile cause, helping players who have a shot at playing at a higher level.”
St. Onge could recount each game that went off that June 16-17 weekend, and it’s clear that he’s inspired by the players who are all too happy to return each year.
“Massachusetts [girls] scored in the opening two minutes against Connecticut,” St. Onge recalled the host state's 35-5 victory on day one. “This is Connecticut’s second year at the tournament. They only had three or four high schools to choose from and were shellacked last year, but they were good sports. They took their lumps with the idea that you have to play in order to get better. … So when Massachusetts scored right away, I thought it was going to be just like last year. But then Connecticut righted the ship and their outside center scored and they were tied 5-5 at half. Massachusetts’ bigger, stronger pack started to wear down a smaller, faster Connecticut team in the second half, and they began to wilt. But they held their own for the first half.”
Vermont encountered similar competition against Capital District, and although their tactics to move the ball wide and around the bigger New York-based team were rewarded with 15 points, Capital District moved onto the final with a 48-15 win.
That set up two good games on Sunday, with opponents of similar nature facing off. St. Onge was tickled to watch Connecticut rally against Vermont, getting two late tries to win their first-ever Challenge Cup match 24-23. The final was equally as thrilling, and rewarding.
“In the final, each team would get close to scoring, and then the defense would stiff them on the line,” St. Onge said. “There’d be a turnover and then they’d grind it out up the field. It was so evenly matched and one of the hardest hitting games I’ve seen in a while. But it was all with good sportsmanship, everyone helping each other off the ground.”
By the end of regulation, Capital District and Massachusetts were deadlocked at 5-all. The win would come down to place-kicks. The two teams’ coaches conferenced, checked in with their squads, and everyone decided that co-champions was the best call.
“That was fine by me,” St. Onge said. “At that age, that can be a lot of pressure to put on a kick, and a kid. At the end of the day, there are a thousand things you can do on a Saturday, so you have to make sure they’re having fun. As soon as the announcement was made, the players stormed the goal posts for a group picture. It was a fitting ending and really showed the true spirit of rugby.”
But St. Onge had no time to decompress after the Cup’s conclusion, and transitioned right into the following weekend’s event, Eric White Memorial 7s, which he’s been running since 2006. The past four years, the tournaments have ended up on back-to-back weekends, but St. Onge still sees the positives of such a schedule.
“The Challenge Cup acts like a test for Eric White,” St. Onge explained. “Were there any hiccups? Then let’s find a solution and do a better job the following weekend. It’s a little different dealing with U19s and adults, 7s versus 15s, and there are different venues, but we received numerous reports that this year's 7s tournament was the best-run yet."
Clearly, St. Onge reaps a lot of personal satisfaction from running these tournaments, but he’s quick to reiterate that the praise does not belong to him alone.
“MYRO president Bill Good and new youth development officer Jessie Condon do as much work behind the scenes as I do,” St. Onge said of the Challenge Cup. “And the Eric White 7s, that’s a collaborative effort with the entire Springfield club. My name’s attached to these events because I’m the director, and all of the credit goes to me, but there are a lot of people in the shadows who pitch in to make these events successful.”
New England’s players are the real benefactors. In the course of one week, everyone from JV boys high school to women’s 7s club qualifying for nationals have a centrally located venue at which to play. And while St. Onge entertains brief notions of a respite, he’s driven to improve both events and serve those in his region.