For the first time since March 2020, the Yale Men’s Rugby team (1-1) played an official regular season game last Saturday in New Haven. The Blue and White defeated American International College (0-1), winning 36-24, to officially commence its 147th season. 

The win comes nearly two years after its previous game, in which the Bulldogs took on Oxford and Cambridge during an international tour in March 2020. The squad retained several key members from its previous starting XV. Combined with a few rookies, the team was able to control the pace for much of the opener. Despite having just a few short weeks to prepare for the contest, it was clear that the Bulldogs’ conditioning was still there despite the long break.

“We had to get creative to keep the team active and engaged during the pandemic,” captain and inside center Henry Large ’23 said. “We kept with the team motto of ‘No Excuses,’ to emphasize that we wouldn’t let the challenges we faced stop or slow us. We had somewhat of a hybrid season in the spring with weekly Zoom meetings, at home workouts and socially distanced outdoor sessions for players in New Haven. We were proud of how the team made the most out of difficult circumstances and still managed to grow and improve.”

In addition to the weekly strength and conditioning workouts, the team hosted film sessions led by players, alumni and professional rugby players and coaches. Large emphasized that it was important for the team to stay sharp during its time away from the pitch, and believed that it would make the difference once competition finally resumed. 

Once students returned to campus, a new challenge presented itself — recruiting. While the team saw some of its players take academic leaves of absence, many of its key players graduated and left a void for the team to fill. Winger and president Mahlon Sorenson ’22 rose to the occasion and led a massive recruiting initiative that saw the team’s roster numbers nearly double from previous years. In addition to solidifying the team’s backups, several of the new recruits have quickly meshed into the program’s culture and now have a place on the starting squad.

“Our recruiting has been off the charts this year,” Sorenson said. “Everyone on the team recognized that we needed to make a concerted effort to get new members onto the team, but we never could have expected the turnout we got. To have 60 guys on the roster is a dream come true. The energy from our new players has been instrumental in this regard, though I think everyone is just happy to have the opportunity to suit up and play rugby for Yale.”

Cavan Walsh '23, Large, Nick Heymann '24, and Jackson Pullman '23 (right to left) line up prior to a kickoff.

Cavan Walsh ’23, Large, Nick Heymann ’24, and Jackson Pullman ’23 (right to left) line up prior to a kickoff.

Large opened up scoring against AIC, followed in short succession by another try from Drew Ward ’23. After a few defensive breakdowns, the Elis found themselves down 17-10 but that would be the only time Yale played from behind throughout the entire contest. With additional tries from Luke Pankey ’23, Lucas Wiseman ’23, Clay Thames ’22 and Ariel Melendez ’23, the Bulldogs emerged victorious against the regional powerhouse that boasts several Major League Rugby draft picks.

“It felt very good to pick up such a huge win against a team which most outsiders expected to beat us,” prop Ethan Coyle ’24 said. “We fought very hard throughout the entire match, and grinded out a big win. From the initial kickoff to the very last scrum, every single guy out there gave it his all.”

This past weekend, the Bulldogs opened Ivy play against Columbia. Yale took the lead under the lights and headed into the second half up 14-7. Despite several key defensive stops late in the second half, the Lions scored off a blocked kick and a deep scrum to take the lead. Although a late try from Pankey would bring the Bulldogs back into the game, Yale eventually fell 21-19 in a battle that was hard-fought until the 80th minute.

Yale will look to redeem itself next week against Brown.

“Everyone fought hard — tackling, rucking and carrying,” Large said. “Our sophomore and first-year rookies stepped up and made plays, and our older players, who lost 18 months of Yale Rugby, led and carried the team. There’s a lot to take away from this loss, so we’ll make sure we learn from it and hit it hard this week to prepare for the next game.”

The 2020-21 season marks the 147th campaign for Yale men’s rugby, making it one of the oldest North American collegiate sports teams. 

Reporter Akshar Agarwal is on the Men’s Rugby team roster.