Running with Rugby

By Shelly Wilson  (Athletic Management, 14.5, August/September 2002)

No longer just for bloodied, beer-swilling louts, rugby is finding new popularity among American students. In response, several schools are turning their club teams into varsity sports.

Turn on ESPN in the wee hours of the morning, or surf past Sky Sports on a Sunday, and you may come across a scene of padless athletes making their way up a field as they continually pass a ball behind them, deliberately toss teammates 12 feet in the air, and engage in what appears to be tightly tangled head-to-head combat. What you’ve stumbled upon is the game of rugby.

And while it may not currently be on your radar, that may change in the next few years. Already one of the most played and watched contact sports in the world, rugby is growing stateside. According to the May 2002 edition of Rugby Magazine, there are currently 1,765 rugby clubs actively competing in the United States, up from 1,651 last year. The fastest-growing segment is youth rugby, where the number of clubs increased 48 percent over the last two years to 411—and the majority of those are high school clubs. Of that number, 76 are girls’ clubs, up nine percent from last year.

“Word of mouth is spreading,” says Anthony Mattacchione, Head Coach of the boys’ rugby team at Jesuit College Prep in Dallas, which made its club team a varsity sport in 1999. “Like soccer, it’s taking off because it’s a sport that a lot of kids can play, and it’s not expensive to sponsor.”

Rugby has long been a popular club sport at the collegiate level. Rugby Magazine’s data shows there are 302 collegiate women’s clubs and 432 collegiate men’s clubs. And this past May, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors granted women’s rugby emerging sport status—a nod to its growing popularity and future growth potential. And legislation extending that designation to Divisions II and III is in process.

With an increasing number of players and its governing body, USA Rugby, making efforts to expand the sport at the grassroots level, college and high school administrators may soon face queries from their own students about making rugby a varsity sport. In this article, we’ll discuss overcoming rugby’s bad-boy reputation, the sport’s ability to boost and diversify participation, and tips on transitioning it from club to varsity.

A Rowdy Reputation

With bumper stickers and T-shirts reading “Give Blood. Play Rugby,” it’s little wonder that the sport is looked on as one that draws either maniacs or drunken louts. Much of that reputation is well earned.

“Rugby has certain stigmas attached to it in this country,” says Frank Graziano, Head Coach of the women’s varsity rugby team at Eastern Illinois University. “And it has been carrying the weight of those stigmas around for decades. Rugby is a very social sport, and it conjures the image that when the game is over, you roll the keg of beer onto the field and go to drinking right away. Well, that’s not a myth. That goes on and has gone on for a very long time at a variety of levels. It’s part of the mystique of being involved in club rugby.”

But Graziano and others point out that reputation is very much tied to rugby’s status as a recreational sport. You see the same thing in community softball teams, on the golf course, and with other club sports. The good news is that it’s a dying custom on more and more rugby teams, due, in part, to the professionalization of the sport overseas.

“The game has changed a lot in recent years,” explains Jack Clark, Head Coach of the varsity men’s rugby team at the University of California-Berkeley, which won its 12th consecutive national championship in May. “You can watch real rugby on television now, and you can see the game being played at a professional elite level with finely tuned athletes playing for all they’re worth. That has an effect on the recreational view of rugby. It is providing a shining new example to follow.”

“There are probably 10 or 15 elite-type club programs [in the U.S.] on both the men’s and women’s sides where that [partying element] is not the norm,” adds Graziano. “And that social aspect is never going to exist at the varsity level. None of that drinking exists in my program. What the other team does after the game is irrelevant to us.”

Perceptions about the safety of the game also work against the sport. To the uninitiated, rugby looks like football without pads—a recipe for disaster. And since it’s not a sanctioned sport in the U.S., little data is available to dispel those perceptions. But the worldwide rugby community continually investigates ways to make the sport safer, and international data indicates that injury rates are similar to other contact sports.

For instance, in 1995, Health Canada searched for rugby related injuries in its Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program—a database compiling records from 16 participating urban hospital emergency rooms. The years 1991-1994 showed that, across all ages and skill levels, of the 839 rugby injuries on the emergency-room records, the most frequent types of injury were abrasion, bruising, or inflammation. Only 34 cases were concussions.

U.S. coaches have witnessed similar rates in their programs. “We’ll get only one or two concussions each season, and they are usually the light, less than grade-one variety,” says Graziano. “More often, it’s bruises that come from making contact with the ground.”

“We’ve seen more injuries on the football and soccer fields than we have on the rugby field,” says John Burpoe, Athletic Director at Xavier High School in New York City, where boys’ rugby is a varsity sport and the team ranks third in the country. “And the only protective equipment those kids wear is a mouth guard.”

The Merits

If you can get past its perceived drawbacks, there’s much about rugby that makes it an ideal varsity sport. Most outstanding is the breadth of numbers, skills, and body types it accommodates.

Each team fields 15 players, and most college teams carry up to 30 on their rosters. At the high school level, however, some teams have up to 50 athletes—opting to sponsor A, B, and C sides, which is similar to the familiar varsity, junior varsity, freshman team setup. And the fast-paced, non-stop nature of the game allows time for B and C teams to compete after the A match is completed.

“An average rugby game is one and a half hours long, and that includes halftime and injury time,” says Mattacchione. “I may have 40 players on my team and only play 22 of them in one match. However, adding a third half to a game is common courtesy among coaches. So the other 18 play then.

“Or, if the other team has a B-side, too, we’ll put 15 against 15 in a warm-up or post-game match,” he continues. “The kids play at least two 20-minute halves, enjoy a run around, and feel part of the program. So in the time it takes to play the average football game, you’re getting in two games, and many more athletes are given the chance to play.”

Administrators may also be attracted by the fact that, unlike many other sports, the positions on the field (called a pitch) demand a wide range of body types—providing athletic opportunities to a diverse group of students. “Rugby requires a portfolio of body types,” says Clark. “You need some strong, powerful people, some squatty people, tall beanpole players, average-size people, players who are agile—and I think that’s very attractive.”

“Participation is a focus at this school, so that’s why rugby was a good fit for us,” says Steve Koch, Jesuit’s Director of Athletics. “There are a lot of kids who are successful on our rugby team who didn’t have the size, skill, or talents to make a starting position on our football team. Now they have a sport they can excel at, and that’s been wonderful for our kids.”

Rugby is also a very inexpensive sport to sponsor. When it comes to equipment, the essentials are five or six balls, some cones, and uniforms. Protective gear includes a mouth guard, although some players also like to wear scrum caps to protect their ears. A scrum sled, which can cost up to $5,000, is valuable for teaching players how to correctly engage in the scrum, but there are ways to limit its expense. At Jesuit, Mattacchione purchased a generic-brand scrum sled for only $1,400, and at Eastern Illinois, Graziano and another member of the athletic department built their own.

At Eastern Illinois, the school provides practice uniforms, game uniforms, travel bags, warmups, a ball for nearly every player, new cleats (called rugby boots) for each team member almost every year, and $100 custom-made orthodontic mouth guards. “If you add up our operating budget, the coaches’ salaries, scholarships, and insurance, we’re close to $75,000 a year,” says Deb Polca, Senior Associate Athletic Director at Eastern Illinois. “And that’s not expensive for operating a sport.”

In terms of facilities, schools can make use of regulation soccer fields by simply relining the boundaries and bringing in portable goals. Or they can sometimes use area parks, as Xavier does. But football fields are too small, coaches warn. “Rugby played on a football field is tight,” says Graziano. “We run and pass, and you can’t take a game that’s played on a field 70 meters wide and play it on a field 49 meters wide. It’s just not the same game.”

Coach Search

Although administrators who’ve transitioned club teams to varsity status express satisfaction with the outcome, the process isn’t without its obstacles. One is finding quality coaches.

Because most coaches in the club system are volunteers with full-time jobs in other fields, finding a candidate with rugby experience who can also perform in an school athletic environment is a challenge. But there are some qualities you can look for to help ensure you find the best person available.

One is certification. USA Rugby offers coaching certification up through Level III. Level I teaches basic principles of the game. Level II teaches game theory, technical aspects of the sport, and practical skills. Level III covers the roles and responsibilities of the coach.

“You also want someone who’s still actively involved in the sport,” says Mattacchione, “whether as a player, coach, or club administrator, because they know the rules changes, have their ear to the ground, and know what is and is not acceptable on the field.”

But Polca warns that it’s possible for a candidate to be too close to the club game. “I think one of the first things you want to be sure of is that your candidates don’t buy into the stereotype about rugby—the camaraderie and so forth,” she says. “A volunteer club coach is going to have a very different relationship with his or her players than an interscholastic coach. You’re looking for a person who understands that when he or she is coaching, there are limits to what they do with the team.”

“For us, the most important thing was finding a coach who understood the philosophy of our program and what we were trying to accomplish,” says Koch. “We found part-time rugby coaches, but we were concerned about their professionalism. Is it just a recreation time for them, or is the coach going to develop the players the way we want to develop our student-athletes here?”

Opponents Anyone?

One potential complication for administrators and coaches contemplating a move to varsity is scheduling. Since the California men and Eastern Illinois women are the only collegiate varsity programs in the country, and just a handful of high school varsity teams exist nationwide, departments that introduce rugby to their varsity lineups have to be prepared for a period of club-only competition. They must also be ready for the problems this can pose to their coaches, athletes, and administrators.

According to Graziano, scheduling competition with club teams is one of the most trying aspects of his job. “My schedule is technically due on December 1 prior to the following season,” he says. “But it’s impossible to meet that deadline because there’s no way I can get the club people I work with to commit in December to a September game for the following year. This May, for example, I was still trying to finalize an October match.

“Part of the nightmare is that I’m not dealing with coaches,” he continues. “I have to work with a 20-year-old student elected to be the team’s match secretary. So athletic directors need to be a little flexible with their rugby coaches when it comes to scheduling.”

Even when games are scheduled, Graziano has found that it’s not uncommon for clubs to cancel matches at the last minute. “So, this year we put all the visiting clubs under contract,” he says. “It doesn’t completely prevent them from backing out of a match, because we didn’t put monetary penalties in there. But it does require the club sports director’s signature and campus rec director’s signature, not the club president’s. With these two people responsible, they turn to their club presidents and say, ‘You will show up for this game.’”

The other downside of scheduling an emerging sport is the travel required. Jesuit has some club opponents nearby, but they also drive over four hours to San Antonio to fill out their schedule. At Xavier, the rugby team competes against squads in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.

At the college level, it can be even worse. Eastern Illinois, for instance, found that most of its matches were away games because many preferred opponents couldn’t afford to travel to Charleston, Ill. The first solution was to meet the teams halfway on another campus. Then last season the department experimented with a new solution that has proven even more economical.

“We decided this year, instead of paying thousands of dollars to drive to Kansas, for example, we’d try to entice the club teams to come here every other year and give them money toward their lodging or expenses,” says Polca. “And like any varsity sport, the guarantee is paid after the completion of the contest. It’s been well received by the clubs, is more economical for the department, and allows us to balance our schedule.”

Lastly, club teams can have very loose standards on who can and cannot compete. So high school and college administrators should realize that their student-athletes may not necessarily be competing against only their peers.

“When you go to USA Rugby’s national tournament, there are rules and regulations about how graduate students can participate,” says Graziano. “But for a regular old weekend game, there’s no telling who’s going to show up.”

“When our varsity team first started,” says Koch, “there wasn’t much high school rugby, and we played a lot of games against college-aged kids. Early on, there were a few lopsided games, so I had to keep a closer eye on that. And if there was a mismatch, we didn’t schedule another game with that side.”

Going Varsity

Club and varsity athletics are two very different worlds, thus the final challenge is taking the club out of the player. The key is preparing the athletes for the control and regulatory changes they will face as varsity athletes.

Eastern Illinois began showing its club players what life as a varsity athlete would be like by having each shadow a varsity athlete. And Polca spoke to the women about the program’s vision and expectations. Still, administrators found that old habits die hard.

“The hardest part initially was getting the students to understand that when you’re in a varsity program, as opposed to a club, you don’t control the decisions,” says Polca. “Club sports are run like fraternities and sororities. A president or captain makes all the budgetary and scheduling decisions. A few players used to that setup didn’t know how to let go of those leadership responsibilities and instead lead in terms of motivating the team.”

In fact, when Graziano held the first team meeting, he discovered the team had held an unauthorized practice earlier that week. What’s more, players handed him a schedule of games they’d arranged—the first being in two weeks. The experience made both him and Polca realize that breaking the players’ club mentality and replacing it with varsity procedures was not going to happen overnight.

“Even now, three years on, I’m phasing things in,” says Graziano. “For example, this past spring was the first time I held morning practices. If I had tried 6 a.m. practice with the old club girls, they wouldn’t have come.”

What Eastern Illinois didn’t anticipate was the change players would see in their opponents due to their varsity status. “We didn’t anticipate the jealousy our team has faced,” says Polca. “Some places give our team a hard time—through foul play and making fun of them as they walk by.”

Despite these challenges, administrators who’ve gone the route of adding varsity rugby to the athletic department feel it’s been a strong addition and hope more departments will soon follow. “I would hope some of the major NCAA Division I schools pick this up in the near future,” says Graziano. “This university didn’t get involved in rugby to compete against club sports. We did it so the varsity team here would eventually play varsity teams at Illinois, Kentucky, or Stanford.”

“We’d love to see more varsity programs,” says Koch, and we’ve had more than our share of tournaments here to try to create interest. But it’s always a struggle for new sports to move to high school varsity from club. We saw the same thing in Texas with ice hockey, wrestling, soccer, and recently lacrosse. But hopefully it will grow, because it would be a lot better for our student-athletes to get to play other high school teams.”

But more than wanting some company, these schools say it’s a worthwhile addition because the interest in the sport is there. “One of the first things that made me believe adding our team was the right decision was when we went to USA Rugby’s national collegiate tournament at Princeton our first year,” says Polca. “There were 12 teams competing, and I was amazed at the number of women on each team. There is interest.”

Sidebar #1: A Proud Past

Although it may be new to many of us, rugby does have a long-standing tradition. It’s said to date back to 1823, when William Webb Ellis, a student at Rugby in England, picked up the ball during a game of soccer and ran with it. Since then, athletes of all origins have flocked to the sport, including astronaut Sally Ride, who helped found Stanford’s women’s club team; basketball pioneer James Naismith, who played as a youth in Canada; and U.S President George W. Bush, who competed at Yale.

It’s been a professional sport on the men’s side since 1995 with its own World Cup, and more than 90 countries currently sponsor national men’s teams, including the United States. Women’s rugby hosted its second World Cup this year, and the U.S. placed seventh.

Although it hasn’t been an Olympic sport since 1924, an application is currently under review by the IOC to make rugby a participating sport in the 2008 Olympics. The USA is actually a two-time Olympic gold winner in men’s rugby, taking the top prize at both the 1920 and 1924 Olympics.

Sidebar #2: Resources

Below are some Web sites containing information useful to departments looking into starting rugby or in the process of transitioning a team to varsity.
Provides information on certification courses, rules of the game, player development camps, and youth development officers in your area, as well as USA Rugby membership.
Site of the International Rugby Board, the world governing and law-making body for the sport. Provides information on laws of the game, and a three-level online coaching course.
A comprehensive England-based site with information on how to coach the game—from individual and team skills to nutrition and injury management.
In its 24th year, Rugby Magazine offers an online version of its publication where individuals can access articles on teams, coaches, and issues facing the sport.