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Chris Mattina left New York to chase one dream, and he’s returned to go after another. After spending a year with the USA 7s team, the pull of playing professional 15s in his hometown proved too strong to ignore, as Mattina traded a full-time contract with the 7s Eagles for one with upstart Rugby United New York of the MLR.
His rugby journey started like so many, in high school. But that’s about where the parallels to your story may end. With a father who chased the egg well into his 40s, picking up the sport at Penn where he originally played gridiron for the Quakers, Mattina was destined to pick up a rugby ball at one time or another.
He grew up watching his dad play on Saturdays on Randall’s Island, where he’d eventually lace up himself. And when it was time for Chris to enroll in high school, it would be at Xavier in Manhattan, the famous rugby factory that’s churned out championships and Eagles for decades.
His first coach is also new one, Mike Tolkin, one of Xavier’s more well-known rugby men. While Mattina was in high school, Tolkin was coaching the New York Athletic Club to Super League titles, serving as an assistant for the Eagles under Eddie O’Sullivan, and coaching Xavier.
In 2011, Mattina’s junior season, Tolkin-led Xavier claimed its last national title. Mattina was named MVP.
“We knew we had something special and everyone bought in,” said Mattina. “That’s kind of the biggest thing for me with Tolks’ teams is that if everyone buys in it’s really cool to be a part of.”
Mattina joins fellow Xavier alums Seamus Kelly and Mike Petri on RUNY. Throw in all of the NYAC and Eagle guys also on the team, and Tolkin has a history of working with much of the roster, so the buy-in part should come for RUNY. The difficulty may be in finding playing time for everyone.
If you go by resumes alone, 34-cap Englishman Ben Foden has fullback on lock. 20-cap Luke Hume is starting, probably at wing. 23-cap Seamus Kelly seems like the frontrunner for at least one center jersey, likely No. 12. And Leinsterman Cathal Marsh will play flyhalf.
That leaves one wing and one center position up for grabs. Mattina and fellow 7s Eagle Connor Wallace-Sims could well fill those roles, but a host of other talents like Mike St. Clair and others still expected to sign, will make competition fierce in the backline.
That doesn’t bother Mattina, who just spent the better part of a year learning from the 7s team’s golden generation, mostly from the bench.
“There are obviously some great backs. Even with 7s it obviously was tough, but I think I learned and got so much better from that. Me personally, I just don’t really think about who’s in front of me or stuff like that. I kind of just prepare for myself and put myself in the best possible position, because you never know what can happen,” said Mattina.
“It’s going to be a long season, so I’m just really looking forward to learning under those guys. They have so much experience, especially at the international level. That also drew me towards it as well instead of pushing me away. I think that was one thing where I was like, wow, I can be around these really experienced guys who have played for England and the USA in 15s, and I want to learn from that and learn what it takes to be a USA 15s player.”
Mattina hasn’t backed down from too many challenges in his young career. The most trying of which might have been the suspension of the rugby program in the middle of his time at the University of Delaware.
Thanks to a party that got out of control, largely because of the involvement of a shady promoter, the nationally competitive and prominent program was issued the death penalty by school administration. The Blue Hens were originally banned from campus for five years, but Mattina did the heavy lifting to get the team back up and running three years early.
He could have looked for greener grass and no one would have blamed him. Instead, he dug in, winning the right to play for the Blue Hens again before graduating. But the ordeal saw the program plummet from finishing fifth at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship in 2012 and winning the challenge trophy in 2013 to fighting with D2 teams for readmittance into the main event.
While he waited for Delaware’s ban to end, Mattina worked, playing club ball for the Wilmington Colts. It was the highest level of rugby he’d played to that point.
He heard a while back, before taking up with the 7s team, an MLR team was headed to New York. While he waited for it, he worked, putting in a year with the Eagles.
“I kept a really close eye on it. It was something I knew was going to be happening before I got to 7s those two years prior,” recalled Mattina.
“It was definitely on the radar for me, and I was keeping a close eye on who was playing for them and keeping track of it, just because eventually it was a goal of mine to play professionally in my hometown.”
With a contract in hand, Mattina’s focus is now fixed on earning a 15s cap and a spot on the plane to Tokyo for next year’s Rugby World Cup.
“They’re pretty high goals, but I hold myself to a pretty high standard,” said Mattina. “A lot of Eagles have been getting picked from Major League Rugby, and I saw this as an opportunity to put my name out there and show what I can do at the 15s level.”
One thing seems certain, if Mattina is made to wait for his first 15s cap and a World Cup call-up, he’ll be working while he does.