Kinga Obartuch

When the Yale women’s rugby team took to the field this fall, the Bulldogs faced off against only three Ivy League opponents. Each competitor shared one defining characteristic: Its program lacked varsity recognition.

Prior to 2016, Yale competed against seven Ivy League opponents over the course of the fall in pursuit of the championship. However, beginning this season, the Ivy Rugby Conference partitioned the women’s programs into two separate subconferences of four teams each. The Ivy Rugby Conference, a combination league of both club and varsity women’s teams, determined where to place each school based on its official athletic designation and skill level.

Yale, which finished the regular season with a 5–1 record, was pitted against Columbia, Cornell and Penn — all programs that hold club status at their respective Ivy League institutions.

In general, club teams represent the lower echelon of Ivy rugby. Princeton makes a notable exception to this generalization: The Tigers play in the top division with the three Ivy varsity teams — Brown, Dartmouth and Harvard. Princeton enjoys this privilege thanks to its notable past record.

Yet subconferences may represent only a temporary solution to problems of talent disparity within the Ivy Conference. Despite the Yale team’s support for this system and administration’s ambivalence, a commitment to this division could exacerbate an already growing skill gap within Ivy women’s rugby.

This new setup gives Yale a fighting chance in national competition in the coming years. With a strong club program, the Bulldogs will now face only teams similar to them in skill level. Prior to the 2017 season, each Ivy Conference squad played the rest of the league, which meant fledgling programs would compete against varsity teams. With a higher level of commitment, more resources and a greater ability to draw recruits, varsity teams are fast outpacing club programs on the field.

By taking the most serious teams off the club squads’ schedules, the new division creates a stronger winning culture and more competitive environment for Yale, which resonates well with rookie players. The Bulldogs, who won five games before losing to Penn in the conclusion of their six-game campaign on Oct. 28, fell just short of a postseason opportunity. The Quakers — who also finished with a 5–1 record but with one more point — were elected to participate in the USA Rugby Division II Playoffs, a chance that is expected to be awarded to the top team in the subconference in future seasons as well.

“The split between club and varsity teams in the Ivy League has allowed us to play against teams … with similar experience levels and physicality, creating competitive matchups,” co-captain SGH Gavis-Hughson ’19 said. “This means an opportunity for us to play at the top of our league. While we’d love to be able to play against all Ivy teams, this isn’t an option right now due to the unique nature of varsity programs mixing with club sports.”

As dictated by tradition, Yale opened its season against Harvard — the Bulldogs’ fiercest rival and one of the most established varsity programs in the NCAA. After the last annual rendition of the historic matchup, current on-the-field captain Eli Ceballo-Countryman ’18 left the pitch happy that her team had “scored and no one was dead.”

Following three years of getting stomped — the cumulative score was 249–5 — enough was enough for Yale. Harvard’s recruits, who arrived for training in early August, were simply more skilled, better prepared and frankly dangerous to play against for a lineup composed primarily of walk-ons, some of whom have never played the sport before. Yale could no longer safely start rookies for fear of injury, and retention suffered amidst safety concerns.

Importantly, the new subconference system is markedly safer for all teams, especially club squads. According to Ceballo-Countryman, who is serving in a heightened leadership role because both Gavis-Hughson and co-captain Reanna Wauer ’20 are currently sidelined with injuries, a greater skill gap between two competing rugby teams means a higher chance for a player to suffer serious injuries. Furthermore, a matchup against a team like 2017’s season-opener Columbia is a better, and more fair, learning experience for new and old players alike.

The Yale women could not be happier with the new system: This split division structure represents the best possible option for women’s rugby on campus. Despite the rise of varsity women’s programs across the country in the last five years, Yale players are hesitant to give up their club status.

While the lure of NCAA recognition and better resources is tempting, the Bulldogs have something more valuable: a community. Though athletic teams of all levels are often characterized by their incredibly close-knit relationships, the culture of women’s rugby has become an especially important aspect of the sport itself. At Yale, most rugby players had never played the sport before stepping onto campus, which players credit with creating a welcoming environment for all skill levels.

In addition, rugby has its own set of traditions. After competitions, players engage in a practice called singing, a convention in both men’s and women’s rugby in which players share songs after competitions during a combined social. According to Ceballo-Countryman, singing within women’s rugby repurposes these traditionally culturally male songs to include themes of body positivity and the sexuality spectrum. Both teams bond over the tradition and are able to connect off the competitive playing field.

The Yale Athletic Department and the women’s club team are in agreement: The Bulldogs should not pursue varsity status, at least in the near future. While the team itself bases its argument on the community and tradition of Yale club rugby, the University likely has different incentives, mainly the elevated costs and resources needed to run a varsity program.

“[The Yale Athletic Department has] had no plans or conversations about men’s or women’s rugby to transition to varsity,” Yale Director of Club Sports Tom Migdalski said. “Yale rugby is very satisfied with its status as a club sport team and runs a safe and successful program at this level in the Ivy League.”

In spite of Migdalski’s adamant comment that this discussion is not on the table for the Yale administration, President of the Ivy Rugby Conference Stephen Siano noted that “all five teams who are not varsity have considered varsity status in the last few years.”

The benefits of an official NCAA varsity status rest primarily in access to athletic resources on campus and in recruitment. The women currently finance their program through support from Yale, alumni and parent donations, and player dues. An alumni endowment allows for the Bulldogs to hire a full-time head coach and access weight rooms and training staff. The men enjoy a similar financial situation.

The Yale women of the team are content with the current state of affairs. Official recruitment, which has the largest potential to single-handedly transform a program, would in many ways alter this culture irreparably. And NCAA regulations, which, according to Ceballo-Countryman, prevent varsity teams from participating in the post-game social and singing, would detract enormously from the current culture.

Just as the women’s team is standing strong in support of its club sport identity, the Yale men’s rugby team — and all men’s rugby teams at Ivy League institutions — is relegated to club status, and the men also seem satisfied with this designation.

According to former men’s rugby captain John Donovan ’16, many of the concerns that stem from being a club program are in the process of being addressed while the benefits remain intact. In the past few years, the team has received access to the varsity gym and strength and conditioning coaches, in addition to Under Armour gear under the new contract.

“These resources have attracted more recruits, unified the team and made practice more official,” Donovan said. “Institutional support has created more legitimacy on both the men’s and women’s sides.”

Donovan also credited the men’s program with providing a welcoming environment and fostering student leadership and a sense of ownership. Like the women’s team, the majority of the Yale men’s rugby squad had never played competitively before coming to campus. Donovan, who walked onto the team his first year without any experience, went on to become the Bulldogs’ manager, secretary and finally captain during his senior year after falling in love with the sport.

Currently, none of the eight Ivy League men’s programs compete at the varsity level, and there is a greater parity within the men’s conference than the women’s. Men’s programs would face the additional barrier of overcoming Title IX regulations at their respective institutions. In order to comply, men’s teams that desire varsity recognition would likely have to wait until the women’s club team was elevated before their statuses were considered.

While the subconferences may present a happy reprieve for individual programs, they present a puzzle for the conference. In 2012, Harvard took a pioneering step forward, becoming the first Ivy League institution to welcome women’s rugby as a varsity sport. Brown and Dartmouth followed in 2014 and 2015, respectively, suddenly establishing the Ancient Eight as the sport’s pre-eminent hope for the creation of a full varsity league.

In 2002, the NCAA categorized women’s rugby as an emerging sport, a distinction that is intended to “help schools provide more athletics opportunities for women and more sport-sponsorship options for the institutions and also help that sport achieve NCAA championship status,” according to the organization’s website.

According to the NCAA, women’s rugby is one of the fastest growing club sports, with more than 350 registered college teams and 5,000 high school participants. And while NCAA support is important for the success of college teams, this is a far bigger moment for rugby, which debuted as an Olympic sport at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The international recognition is a further incentive to begin establishing Division I leagues for the continued development of the collegiate game.

“Rugby is a growing sport in America,” Donovan said. “It’s becoming more legitimate beyond Yale and beyond the Ivy League. I could see the discussion [about potential varsity status] happening down the line.”

Yet the addition of the subconferences, which presents safer and more competitive play for all involved, puts the possible achievement of an eight-team varsity Ivy League for women’s rugby in question.

“Simply, the varsity status of Dartmouth, Harvard and Brown is beginning to create a gap in the on-field play between the varsity teams and the rest,” Siano said. “Princeton has been the best of the nonvarsity programs in the last few years. Their willingness to play up creates the four-and-four split.”

And while the gap in play may be noticeable now, it will continue to widen the longer the subconference system is left in place. In this system, club teams would be at an increased risk of injury if they were to play against more experienced programs, and the barriers to becoming varsity would be higher.

In addition to worries about differing skill levels, Siano expressed concerns over whether club programs would be able to withstand the demands of travel and funding it would take to compete at the varsity level.
The longer the Ivy Conference employs the subconference system, the less likely it is to achieve a full eight-team varsity league. Given this outlook, Ivy women’s rugby will have to choose whether it will go the way of the Ivy gymnastics and hockey programs — both of which joined another conference, the Eastern College Athletic Conference — in order to sustain the sport or whether it will stand by the storied tradition of a complete Ancient Eight league.

“I think the long-term solution is for the Ivy League to lead the growth and safety of the collegiate game and as a league decide to all elevate women’s rugby to varsity,” Harvard varsity head coach Melanie Denham said.

And while that might be the hope of many, Siano said that the Ivy Conference is taking structural changes one season at a time. The subconferences are only in effect for the fall 15s season; the spring 7s season, which is characterized by fewer players on the field and a much shorter game clock, will still see all eight Ivy programs competing against each other.

The Ivy Conference will re-evaluate the split divisions, and the growing skill gap, in January 2018. The decisions will play a hand in the determining the future of Yale’s club rugby community — and perhaps address the lingering question of whether the Ivy League is positioning itself as the most powerful conference in women’s rugby or crumbling without player and institutional support. But for now, at least, the women of Yale rugby will keep on singing.