Impact Free Jack: Dominic McNeil

Pedro Strong

Impact Free Jack celebrates the stories, efforts, and people of the New England community who inspire the next generation of players, leaders and future Free Jacks. The Q&A series explores the journeys of players, coaches, officers, and ambassadors of the game and how they are making a difference.

Coming off of an inspiring D2 State Championship run, Head Coach of Algonquin Rugby, Dominic McNeil, reflects on the journey that got them there, and what the future of rugby holds in New England.

Could you start off by telling me a little about your background and how you got into rugby in the first place?

I’m a native of Spencer, Massachusetts and an alumnus of David Prouty High School in Spencer (‘96). After prepping for a year at Bridgton Academy in Bridgton, ME (‘97) I attended the University of Pennsylvania (‘01) where I majored in English and History and played varsity football. 

It wasn’t until I moved to Scotland for grad school that I was first introduced to rugby. For three years, while studying for my Master’s in Shakespearean Literature, I played rugby for the University of St Andrews. After completing my degree, I moved on to play for Sterling County in the Scottish Premiership for two years. In ‘07 I traveled to San Diego where I continued my rugby career with OMBAC before retiring in 2010 due to injury. 

What was the transition from playing to coaching like for you?

I coached high school football while in San Diego in addition to playing rugby and had success there. Transferring my playing experience and knowledge of the game to coaching at the high school level was a natural progression. Being a teacher definitely helps too. Teaching and coaching go hand-and-hand with each other.

Additionally, working at Algonquin is a coach’s dream. The boys are not only incredibly committed but they have tremendous character and are very smart. They learn the game quickly. On top of that, they are intensely competitive but respectful at the same time; the embodiment of exactly what the game demands of players. Their successes on and off the pitch are testament to that. 

What’s more, it’s difficult to characterize the Algonquin parents’ level of support for their boys and myself. The time and resources they dedicate to the program are invaluable. 

In terms of coaching, I’m very fortunate to have benefited from the tutelage of previous head coach, Jon Pryor in my first year with the program. He did a tremendous job growing and sustaining the team before I became involved. Jon was a great model when it came to progressing players from never having touched a rugby ball in their life to being match-ready in only a few weeks. It’s hard to imagine a better situation to enter into as a rugby coach for the first time. I’m a very, very lucky coach.

It sounds like you speak very highly of everyone involved in this club. For Algonquin to go on that championship run, it must have meant a lot to you and the team.

It meant everything. For eight seniors that started essentially every match for four years, there was one singular focus since freshman year, and that was to win state. Their drive was infectious too as they recruited other very talented and committed players to join them on their journey. 

By the time they took the pitch for the title match, the 1st XV consisted of 11 seniors and 3 juniors with more upperclassmen on the bench. In addition to their talent and experience, that senior class showed tremendous leadership (three were made captains as sophomores). They seamlessly brought along newer players who had a big role in our championship run.

Also, they were a very close-knit group of players. They had a lot of trust in each other and that really showed on match day. Each team huddle was broken with, “Family!” That ethos has been a fundamental aspect of our program’s growth and success. “Family” is now engraved in our championship rings. 

The several players involved at the ground level of the title-winning team fell in love with the game early on and have taken it with them to college. Almost all of the seniors are now playing rugby in college. A few of them are competing at the D1 level.

Every game this past spring was a celebration for them. I couldn’t imagine a better way for their high school careers to end. They imagined it though. They knew how it was going to end since their freshman year and that’s exactly how it unfolded.  

In the midst of your championship run, one of your star players, Pedro Ribiero, was sidelined with a devastating injury. Could you talk about “Pedro Strong” and how you were able to turn such an unfortunate incident into something positive?

Pedro has been at the heart of what Algonquin rugby had been building for the past few years. He is the ultimate competitor; a perfect fit for the #7 jersey. He simply refused to lose in any drill during training sessions and come to think of it, I don’t think he ever did. Pedro isn’t particularly big but his drive to compete was massive.

On the opening kickoff of the state semi-final against Hanover, he went straight in to tackle Hanover’s biggest ball carrier, determined to make the first hit. In the collision, he broke his jaw. I knew something wasn’t right with him but he refused to come out. Ten minutes into the match, after making another tackle and carrying the ball in a later phase, he staggered over to the sideline with his mouth full of blood. If a player like Pedro can’t take anymore, something was definitely wrong. We subbed him out and he had to sit on the bench with ice on his jaw, completely devastated. 

In the week building up to the final, his presence was tangibly missed in training. When fit, he elevated the competitiveness of everything. Pedro was still involved, though. He got water out to the team on those hot June days of training before the final. Supported his teammates however possible. It’s inevitable, though; losing a player like that always leaves a vacuum. 

I had the idea of making “Pedro Strong” shirts for the players and parents a few days before states. It became clear to me that I needed to do something to send the message that he was still a big part of achieving our ultimate goal. The reaction of the team when I surprised Pedro with the first shirt hours before the match was incredibly emotional. It sent a message to the players that the job in front of them was going to be that much more difficult. We all had to lift our game; both players and coaches. We had to be Pedro Strong.

Most importantly, it meant the world to Pedro. We even had a ceremonial tearing off of the shirt sleeves, just like Pedro had done to every shirt in his wardrobe haha.

That story is nothing short of inspiring and I’m sure made a huge impact on the lives of everyone on that team. But what about you, why is rugby important to your life personally?

Within minutes of my first rugby experience, I knew that rugby was the most challenging team sport in the world. Just coming from playing D1 American football, I immediately considered college ball to be two-hand-touch compared to rugby. 

The more rugby became the center of my life in Scotland, the more I was impressed by the culture surrounding the game. Not only is it incredibly demanding both physically and psychologically, there is a class and sophistication surrounding the game both on and off the pitch. Truly a rogue’s game played by gentlemen. I was lucky enough to be a part of very successful teams in Scotland with great rugby culture. The opportunity to tour the world, experiencing various rugby environments in the sport’s most competitive nations was second to none.

Sadly, though I had to hang up my boots from competitive rugby, the game has turned out to be an even bigger part of my life than it ever was while I was playing. As a player, especially from my position as an open-side flanker, the game is relatively simple. Weekly training and just doing your job during match play: ruck, tackle, and jackal; repeat for 80 minutes. 

I started coaching and my understanding of the game and its innumerable aspects really opened up for me. Later on, in addition to my work at Algonquin, I was hired on as the head coach of the Providence men’s club. Obviously there’s a big difference between high school and the men’s game so working at both levels further expanded my understanding of the sport. In addition to all of that, I joined the referee corps in New England. You think you know the game from the perspective of being a player and coach? As soon as I picked up the whistle I realized that I had even more to learn. A lot more. I love it though, and try to get out to officiate as many games as I can (which has been A LOT haha). 

Now, the three things I love the most in life are now a part of my everyday: family, teaching, and rugby. I’ve never been happier.  

What do you think is the key to growing the rugby community in New England?

It is absolutely imperative that Massachusetts grow the game at the middle and high school levels. To achieve this there is one fundamental requirement: WE NEED MORE COACHES!

This venn diagram illustrates the greatest challenge to recruiting more coaches at not just the secondary school level but at all tiers of rugby in the U.S. below the MLR.

The reality is that the proportion of experienced rugby players, is far less than this diagram illustrates. Smaller still is the diagram’s intersection representing the number of qualified coaches that have the time and energy to commit to running secondary school programs. Fact is, it’s only a handful of girls and boys coaches that run all of secondary school rugby in Massachusetts as they keep popping up in multiple roles throughout the rugby calendar; partly out of necessity but also due to their great passion for and commitment to the game.

In all of Worcester County, Algonquin is the only high school that offers rugby as a varsity sport. Despite its population (second largest in New England) it has been challenging to recruit coaches. 

There has been progress, though. An initiative to establish and develop both boys and girls cooperative teams between the several public schools in Worcester, spearheaded by the Worcester Sports Foundation, started to build momentum in 2019. The introduction of COVID-19 has made this progress difficult to build upon in the past couple of years. Nonetheless, the same pre-COVID stakeholders in boys and girls rugby throughout Massachusetts, who are ALL “Impact Free Jacks” are still very much at the coal face and determined to further the intensely competitive game.

Over the past decade, along with the maturation of domestic rugby in the U.S. and as a result of the positive gravity created by the sport’s influencers throughout the country, there has been significant growth in not only the number of coaches but the quality as well. The same goes for referees. However, the growth in the ranks of coaches and officials has been far outstripped by the relative explosion of rugby’s popularity in this country the past few years. More and more players are taking up the game at the collegiate and club levels. 

The fastest growing sport in America demands more quality coaches and refs sooner rather than later. To move the dial any faster, though, it’s going to require even more than the current amount of time and level of commitment that our nation’s extant rugby community already pours into the game. Regardless, I’m all in. After all, rugby is the game they play in heaven. 

And finally, what is your favorite rugby moment?

Winning the state championship this past spring. Nothing else is close. I’ve certainly had my share of successes both individually and as team member in a variety of sports. Undoubtedly, though, this title was my absolute favorite. Ironically, it was incredibly special to me personally precisely because it had very little to do with me. It was all the players. They worked extraordinarily hard for a very long time to win states and reach the summit of that mountain. It was an honor to be a witness to their collective triumph. Hard to top that.

About The Free Jacks:  The Free Jacks are an aspiring and innovative live events, media, and consumer products organization. The core brand in the portfolio is The New England Free Jacks, the humble hard-working free-spirited professional rugby team competing in the emergent and exhilarating Major League Rugby (MLR), the premier North American professional rugby competition. For more information please visit www.FreeJacks.com