Before the fall of 2015, the Yale women’s club rugby team had not won a single game in three years. However, that losing record changed for the better when the women’s team used alumni funding to hire head coach Craig Wilson in August 2015.
Following in the footsteps of the men’s club rugby team, which hired a full-time coach in 2014, the women’s team won four of its seven Ivy League games last year. Thus far, the team is 2–1 this season with Wilson at the helm.
With the success of the past season behind him and a win against Penn on Sunday, Wilson is dedicated to developing a strong club program for the Bulldogs with the possibility of varsity status in the coming years.
“I think we need to develop the program to the best it can be, Wilson said. “[We want to] make sure the coaching is professional, that everything is safe and that everything is done with player welfare in mind.”
Wilson has coached professionally for the past decade, including time with both the India national team and Hong Kong’s junior national team — a major improvement for an Eli team that did not have a coach from a rugby background prior to Wilson. He accepted the job after hearing that the rugby alumni base was searching for a full-time coach. Additional alumni donations are used to fund once-a-week access to the varsity gym and time with Associate Director of Strength and Conditioning Mike Harris.
According to Wilson, his players have found the nature of the sport — which has been steadily gaining popularity — to be empowering. Rugby has been growing on both the national and international level, even returning to the Olympic stage at Rio de Janeiro for the first time since 1924. This change has been reflected at Yale, with 10 freshmen joining this fall, the highest rookie class the program has seen.
“We had a huge influx of players,” Wilson said. “I think it’s a testament to where the program started last year and where it is this year and how we’ve rebranded the game. Rugby is not a violent sport … it’s a contact sport.”
Part of Wilson’s rebranding of the program includes his goals to prioritize student welfare, introduce professional protocols and continue the safe space he has tried to create. His successful implementation of these aims has not gone unnoticed by his team.
According to winger Rachel Perler ’17, Wilson’s knowledge and skills are essential to the team’s success and his coaching style highlights individual strengths.
“It has been absolutely wonderful to work with our coach, Craig, through our transition year last year,” hooker Serena Lau ’17 said. “As a senior, I’ve seen the trajectory of our team move in really positive directions over the last couple of years. We’ve really upped our game while still ensuring that what makes [our team] special remains.”
While the team is satisfied with its current club status, a move to varsity could be in its future. Of the eight Ivy League schools, Dartmouth, Brown and Harvard all have varsity rugby teams and, according to Wilson, Princeton is in the process of declaring varsity status. While he recognizes the benefits that varsity status could provide to the Yale team, Wilson’s primary goal as head coach is to continue developing the team in order to develop a strong club rugby program for the Bulldogs.
Currently, the team’s access to the gym and time with Harris is the result of a good relationship with the club-sports administration. If the team were upgraded to the varsity level, it would receive benefits like player screening and recruiting opportunities, in addition to increased funding.
According to prop Emma Goldrick ’17, petitioning for varsity status is difficult because both the team and administration have to be on board, but she believes the club team could petition in the next few years.
Director of Club Sports, Intramurals and Outdoor Education Tom Migdalski wrote in an email to the News that he has not heard of any mention of the women’s rugby club applying for varsity status from anyone involved with the program, including players, coaches, parents or alumni. He added that the Athletic Department is not planning to add any more varsity sports at this time.
The women’s rugby team is composed of 24 players this year.