When Drew Shaw realized that the St. Monica Catholic football team needed help with its tackling skills this season, the coach turned to an unexpected advisor: a rugby expert.

And as it turns out, the lessons imparted by parent volunteer Nick James didn’t just yield an improved defense on the gridiron. They also built momentum towards the recent establishment of a rugby team at St. Monica, the first such squad in school history.

James is serving as coach of the new rugby program, which expands on the winter athletic options for students at the Santa Monica private school.

“It’s becoming a much more popular sport,” Shaw said. “It’s going to be really good for us in the long run, not only for the football program but also for the recognition of our school and having that to offer. It’s a pretty cool thing.”

The Mariners’ season, which is organized through Southern California Youth Rugby, began Dec. 4 with a match against Manhattan Beach-Mira Costa. Their campaign also includes tilts against Palos Verdes, Dana Point-Dana Hills, Los Angeles-View Park Prep, Bellflower-St. John Bosco and Long Beach-Wilson. Home games will be played at Webster Middle School in West Los Angeles.

More than 20 students have joined the new rugby team at St. Monica, which exemplifies the growth of the sport in Southern California and across the country.

It all started when James, who is active in the Santa Monica Rugby Club, approached Shaw last year about starting a rugby team at St. Monica. Shaw facilitated discussions with school administrators about adding rugby as a winter sport.

This past football season, James taught tackling to the Mariners football team twice a week and began drumming up interest in a sport that is unfamiliar to many American athletes and fans. Helping with the recruiting effort was his son, Dylan, a standout running back who is also an experienced rugby player.

“We got a bunch of guys from football, but we’ve got a few guys who’ve never played a sport in their life,” James said. “And they’re having success. It’s been really fantastic.”

But before teaching the newcomers the basics of rugby, James had to convince St. Monica coaches that the new sport wouldn’t negatively impact the rosters of other winter teams. Ultimately, he said, he can envision expanding the rugby program with non-tackle versions at elementary and middle school levels and creating a pipeline for the high school team.

Those are long-term goals for a program that was scrambling to fill out its roster just a few weeks ago. With money invested in uniforms and the season quickly approaching, James was worried that St. Monica wouldn’t have enough students to field a competitive team.

“We all started to panic,” he said.

Struggling to find field space, a small group of players began practicing at Reed Park across the street from the St. Monica church.

“Kids from the school started coming and hanging around, and we just started grabbing those kids,” James said. “They would say, ‘No, no, I’m just here to watch,’ but we would just grab the guy, throw him in the game and teach him what was going on. … All of a sudden, it just took off like wildfire. And it’s still growing.”

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, jeff@www.smdp.com or on Twitter.