Tackles and diamond-shaped balls are no longer just symbols of football — as rugby grows in popularity across the nation, so does the number of Ivy League schools elevating their rugby programs to varsity status.
As of this fall, Brown, Harvard and Dartmouth have all recognized women’s rugby as a varsity sport, a school designation that increases a program’s ability to recruit and receive funding from the school. Dartmouth became the most recent Ivy team to make the switch this fall, after Harvard and Brown elevated their programs in 2012 and 2013, respectively. The same trend has not been observed for men’s rugby, which has 14 varsity-recognized teams nationwide but is not currently an NCAA sport.
While members of the Yale club men’s rugby team did not indicate a present interest in becoming the Ivy League’s first varsity men’s rugby team, the women’s team, after seeing three Ancient Eight squads now reach varsity status, is more hopeful for a transition in the future. Players on both teams highlighted the ongoing development of their programs, which has included the hiring of two new head coaches in the past two years.
“At the moment we are not concentrating on going varsity,” Yale director of rugby and men’s head coach Greg McWilliams, in his second year leading the team, said. “We are setting a strong foundation through both programs and trying to get them to a point where they are competitive … I would like to think that if there is a transition to varsity it would come by for the women before the men.”
Despite the men’s team’s club status, the athletic administration recognizes the sport’s growth and has been very supportive of the teams’ needs, McWilliams said. Last winter, for example, the men’s team was given access to the varsity gym and its trainers, a move that may have played a role in the team’s berth to the USA Rugby Men’s DI-AA National Championship Tournament last spring. This access is unusual, as the Yale Club Sports Handbook notes that the varsity weight room is “not available for club sport athletes.”
This fall, the administration also hired new women’s head coach Craig Wilson, who was previously coaching with Hong Kong National Under 20s, Hong Kong’s junior national team.
Like McWilliams, Wilson said that he views his job as ensuring that the program — whether it be club or varsity — is always developing, and that players are satisfied.
However, Wilson did recognize the benefits that becoming a varsity sport would bring to the program: regular access to the varsity gym, access to nutrition experts and supplements, provision of sports medicine, increased funding and additional coaching resources such as assistant coaches and trainers.
“I personally think varsity is a mindset,” Wilson said. “It does not mean that the ladies involved in the team work less than those in varsity programs. Everything they do is through pride, determination and teamwork with little external support.”
Women’s co-captains Serena Lau ’17 and Alina Yaman ’17 added that although there has been an ongoing conversation on the team in the last few years about transitioning into a varsity sport, the current team is still in its developing stages and is working towards playing competitively with the hopes of eventually becoming an established varsity program.
Tom Migdalski, director of club sports, intramurals and outdoor education said the Yale Athletic Department has not received a request from men’s or women’s rugby for varsity status thus far, and declined to comment further on the topic.
“With varsity-level competitors, we need to be able to play at their level, and we need to put in the work to do that,” Lau said.
Being an intensely physical and technical sport, rugby requires a high level of commitment throughout the season from athletes, men’s team captain John Donovan ’16 said.
The men’s team practices an estimated 10 to 15 hours every week, including practice sessions, weight training, team meetings and weekend games.
“Rugby offers a unique athletic and team experience as compared with frisbee, soccer or any other activity offered at Yale,” Donovan said. “The intensity of the sport attracts highly motivated and driven individuals while its physicality fosters camaraderie and builds character.”
Lau and Yaman said that rugby at Yale requires a higher level of investment than other club sports.
The women’s team has two field practices, three weight training sessions and one skill development session each week. In addition, players must watch video analyses of their weekly games in their own time, Lau and Yaman said.
The Yale Club Sports Handbook cites several criteria for a club team looking to become a varsity sport, such as a history of deep interest in the sport from the Yale community, existence of adequate competition within the Ivy League or the region and evidence that Yale can perform well in the sport, among other factors. It adds that the criteria do not fully define the requirements for ascension to varsity level, and that “becoming a varsity sport is not a simple process.”
The Yale Women’s Rugby Football Club was founded in 1978, and the men’s in 1875.