Walking across Yale’s campus, it’s easy to see one, if not several, Yale Rugby sweatshirts, sweatpants or polo shirts being worn by students. You might even know a few members of the team. But it’s equally probable that most students have never been to a Yale rugby match and that, if they’re from the United States, their knowledge of the sport is limited.
At Yale, however, the team has decades of history and tradition to fall back on in place of popularity among students.
About two weeks ago, on a Saturday afternoon, the rugby team played the UConn team. There were no bleachers on the field, just spectators alongside the players, everyone exclaiming after a hard tackle and celebrating a long pass. All the while, as the stakes heightened, the sidelines were nearly empty, with few fans on hand to witness the team begin its Ivy League season 2-0.
“As a spectator, you’re so close to the field,” team captain Patrick Madden ’10 said. “No one is covered in pads, and no one is covered in helmets. It’s hard not to cringe after each brutal hit and get involved from the sidelines. Obviously we love to have as many fans as we could get.”
Yale’s rugby team is technically classified as a club sport. But its players practice four days a week, have three coaches and travel for nearly half their season to take on other varsity rugby teams in the northeast. The team has existed for over 130 years and its alumni include Walter Camp ’80, the creator of American football, and President George W. Bush ’68. The historic Harvard-Yale match is played the morning of The Game and is one of the traditions of which team members are so fond.
“Playing for such an old team, you definitely feel the sense of tradition and pride,” Madden said. “You feel like you’re a part of something older, something important.”
Head coach Jan Pikul added, “The old days of drinking and rugby are gone, but it will, and has, taken a while to break that reputation.”
But along with the reputation come some traditional customs of the team. Sam Power ’12, a native Irishman, grew up watching rugby as a professional sport and proceeded to play on his high school’s rugby team before coming to Yale. As an ambassador of the sport, Power said he enjoys the concrete traditions that the team upholds, such as singing the Yale rugby anthem.
A more recent custom is the adoption of a rugby house on Edgewood Street where seven team members reside. Madden said that barbecues in the backyard after games are greatly anticipated among the players and coaches.
“My best friends are all on the rugby team,” Madden said. “We all hang out off the field, and I think that’s a big part of why we get so many new members. You can join the team at any point during the year—new players see the spirit and want to be a part of it.”
That spirit does not just affect current and prospective players but continues on in the extensive alumni network that the team boasts. Former players stay involved by participating in the annual alumni rugby match and attending various events hosted in their honor.
“What I like most about rugby is that it’s like going to war every Saturday when you step on the pitch,” Brandon Sharp ’11 said. “And what makes it even better is that you’re fighting with people you can count on on and off the field.”