By Ed Brennen
Like many plastics engineering majors at UML, Nolan Buckley had a job waiting for him when he graduated.
It just so happens that Buckley’s first job out of college is playing professional rugby.
Buckley, who completed a bachelor’s degree from the Francis College of Engineering in December, is in Texas preparing for his rookie season with the Dallas Jackals of Major League Rugby (MLR), which kicks off Feb. 19.
The North Attleboro, Massachusetts, native was selected by the Jackals in the second round of the MLR collegiate draft last August — an accomplishment made even more impressive by the fact that Buckley didn’t start playing the sport until joining UML’s men’s club rugby team as a sophomore.
“I’m excited for the whole experience of playing rugby at the highest level and seeing how far I can take it,” says Buckley, who has a two-year contract with the Jackals.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Buckley played football and baseball at North Attleboro High School, winning a state championship in baseball at UML’s LeLacheur Park during his senior year.
“I’ve always loved the environment and culture of team sports,” says Buckley, who joined the rowing club team for “something to do” during his first year at UML.
Getting up before dawn six days a week for practice was a big commitment, but “it definitely whipped me into shape,” says Buckley, who was persuaded by friends to try rugby as a sophomore.
Competing at the Division 2 collegiate level against schools from across New England, the UML rugby club plays 15-on-15 games in the fall and 7-on-7 games in the spring at the Campus Recreation Complex. Buckley quickly took a liking to the sport and helped UML advance to national championship tournaments each season, including last spring in New Orleans.
“Rugby is the epitome of team sports — you’re communicating for 80 minutes straight on both offense and defense,” says Buckley, who found that rowing had conditioned him to play forward on the rugby field. “My fitness helped me a lot. The muscles I gained transferred well to rugby.”
At the same time, Buckley was developing his plastics engineering muscle. He chose UML because of its strong engineering programs but admittedly “didn’t know anything about plastics” when he arrived on campus.
“But I like how there are so many different areas to it; plastics are everywhere,” says Buckley, who leaned on his advisor, Asst. Teaching Prof. Anne Soucy, whenever he needed help.
Following his sophomore year, Buckley landed a six-month research and development engineering co-op position at NxStage Medical in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he got hands-on experience testing the optical properties of PVC film used in home hemodialysis machines.
He followed that up with a manufacturing co-op last summer at Corning Life Sciences in Durham, N.C., where “I had an injection molding machine all to myself, which was pretty cool,” he says.
Buckley had to take an unexpected weeklong break from his Corning co-op, however, when he learned that he was among 50 college rugby players from across the country who were invited to participate in a showcase tournament in Herriman, Utah. Buckley’s former UML coach, Josh Skinner, had encouraged him to apply for the showcase, where MLR scouts would be on the lookout for talent.
Buckley was soon receiving emails from MLR coaches expressing interest in him, but he didn’t have high expectations heading into the league’s collegiate draft (televised on Fox Sports 2) on August 18, when his cousin threw a draft party for him in North Attleboro.
“I was preparing what to say to everyone when I wasn’t drafted, and then Dallas called my name” with the 27th overall pick, says Buckley, whose first thought was, “Oh my gosh, I guess we’re doing this.”
Founded in 2017, MLR currently has teams in a dozen cities across North America, including New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Diego, Atlanta and Toronto. The New England Free Jacks play in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Dallas went 0-16 as an expansion team in 2022 and are starting with a “clean slate” of new coaches this year, Buckley says.
“Oh my gosh, I guess we’re doing this.”
-Nolan Buckley’s reaction to being chosen by Dallas in the Major League Rugby draft
While he’s a rugby novice compared to most of the players in the league, Buckley says he’s always been very coachable and looks forward to competing at a high level. UML coach Stephen Diamantopoulos believes he’s ready.
“Nolan works as hard as anyone to be mentally and physically fit for matches,” Diamantopoulos says. “Any chance he gets to gain knowledge about one of the many rugby laws, he is all ears. He also takes every opportunity to become stronger, faster and gain more endurance by pushing himself at training.”
And although his rugby salary doesn’t come close to what he’d make as an engineer (“It’s enough to get by on, but nothing to retire on”), he’s willing to put the latter career on hold for the moment.
“I just know that I won’t be able to play rugby when I’m 50, but hopefully I can still do engineering when I’m 50,” says Buckley, who may continue at UML for graduate school down the road.
“For now, I’m excited to be in the professional sports environment and travel to cities I’ve never been to,” adds Buckley, who plans to return home when his rookie season ends in June.
Of course, his friends and family will be able to see him before then: The Jackals play the New England Free Jacks on March 25 at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Quincy.