Monday, March 31, 2008

Goin' Clubbing: Rugby

Goin' Clubbing will be a regular feature on Gobbler Country. Each edition will be an in-depth look at a different club sport at Virginia Tech. While these athletes aren't on scholarship, they are still proud to play and represent the university. The first feature is on the men's Rugby team.

Rugby and American football have a few things in common. Both sports use an oblong ball and have goalposts and hard hitting. However, the comparisons typically end there, especially for the Virginia Tech rugby team.

The team practices and plays near the intramural fields, in the shadows of Lane Stadium. But while Hokie football players are talked about on message boards and the media, have scholarships and play under bright lights, the players for Tech’s rugby team play solely for the love of their sport and their university.

Most of the players on the rugby team didn’t have any rugby experience before joining. Aerospace engineering senior Chris Underwood didn’t. But like many of his teammates, the Bel Air, Md., native quickly embraced the sport.

He said he joined the team as a freshman because he missed playing sports in high school. He is now the captain of the team and president of the club and serves as mentor for new groups of players who come to the club with a lot of intrigue and little experience.

“Most players come to us with soccer, football, wrestling, or some other sport’s experience,” Underwood said. “We get a few kids out each year who have played before and they usually rise in the ranks quickly. The learning curve is quick though.”

The learning curve was especially quick for engineering freshman Ryan Dill because he had played in high school in York, Pa. He played three years and his team eventually made nationals his senior year.

Dill was aware of the rugby team at Tech before he came to Blacksburg and joined in his second semester. However, he did not expect his past experience to grant him a free-ride to a starting spot.

“I knew collegiate rugby would be severely different,” Dill said. “I have an older brother that plays for Army and I was able to watch them play at that level. Preparation to face the next level is all mental.”

The team practices four times a week, usually at night to accommodate players’ class schedules. Virginia Tech plays both a fall and spring schedule, typically against other teams in Virginia such as Radford and UVa. Recent results have not gone in Virginia Tech’s favor. However, the club is working hard to rekindle past glory.

The Face of Rugby

Proud Past, Promising Future

The men’s rugby club was founded in 1968. The team became a powerhouse in the ‘90s under former coach Steve Guiffre and went to the national tournament six times from 1998 to 2003. However, recently the club has fallen on hard times. This past season, Virginia Tech went 0-5 against its union, the rugby term for conference, and was out-scored 252-53 in those games.

However, head coach Jon Conrad has embraced the team and is emphatic about returning the team to its past glory.

“Our last two seasons have been poor, but I attribute that to general growing pains,” he said. “I'm quickly coming to the end of that excuse, however, so really we've got to start perform this coming fall.”

Conrad is a globetrotter. He came to the Virginia Tech program in 2006 from UVa. He grew up in Bangkok, Thailand, where he played rugby in high school and went on to play college rugby for Siena as well as Trent University in Ontario, Canada. He then coached a men’s club team in the Washington, DC, area while living in Charlottesville before moving on to UVa, where he was an assistant and then the head coach in 2004 and 2005.

Conrad decided to return to school in 2006, which led him to the Blacksburg area. He is now both coach and peer to the Virginia Tech players, as he is attending Tech and majoring in history. Although the Tech team doesn’t have the funds he is used to, he is still committed to its success.

“I’m still young enough and dumb enough to do this for free,” Conrad said.

And the players are just as committed to Conrad. No longer is rugby simply worked into their schedules. Instead, other activities are scheduled around rugby.

“In order of priority I always have school first with rugby right after that,” mechanical engineering senior Lee Doyle said. “Work and my social life come after that.”

This is something Conrad realizes and is very proud of.

“At practices I'm often heard rambling on about sacrifice and commitment, something every coach is entitled to do,” Conrad said. “What I probably don't recognize enough is how much the kids have already sacrificed to do something that is largely unappreciated. Rugby doesn't have the fans, they don't have the scholarships or the right to miss class for practice.”

A line-out against Radford

Making the Students Take Notice

The team has grown in numbers in the past few seasons. Underwood said when he first starting playing fielding a team of 15 was a tall order for the club. Now up to 50 players come to practice and Virginia Tech fields competitive teams in both Division I and III rugby.

However, he said it is important for the club to recruit more and better athletes to become better. This is difficult because the team no longer plays close to campus. The rugby field used to be in an area behind Lee, Pritchard and O’Shaugnessy Hall. Now, the team practices and plays across from the intramural fields and finds it difficult to attract people to games.

Underwood said the team now occasionally practices on the drillfield to be more visible to the students.

“Friends of rugby players love to come out and watch games and are intrigued by its contrast from other sports and of course its violent nature,” he said. “Sadly though, there are kids on campus who don’t know Tech has a rugby team.”

VT attempts to score a try against Kutztown

No Varsity Option

Unlike many club sports at Virginia Tech, the rugby club plays at the highest level of college rugby. This is because rugby is not an NCAA-sanctioned sport. While women’s rugby is on the NCAA watch list, the men’s side does not have an immediate future as a varsity sport.

College rugby is administered by USA Rugby, which holds a national championship each year. Cal is the kings of club rugby, having won 16 of the last 17 national titles. However, Cal’s athletics department considers rugby a varsity sport, despite the fact that rugby is no sanctioned by the NCAA. Therefore, the Golden Bears’ budget is significantly higher than that of other schools.

Would Virginia Tech’s athletics department do what Cal did and adopt the rugby team as its own? Probably not. But that doesn’t sway the opinion of the players that their sport should be considered for promotion to varsity status.

Rugby is the world’s second most popular sport behind soccer. Underwood said that following would allow the university to draw attention that traditional sports wouldn’t. Doyle said making rugby a varsity sport would be mutually beneficial.

And Conrad agrees. He said his players’ work ethic is just as strong as the varsity players in the athletic department and wishes they could get the same commitment from the university that they give.

“To be honest, all that rugby players seem to want, across the board, is the right to wear their school logo and their school colors without feeling like they're breaking some kind of rule,” he said. “In America, I have found that 'varsity' is synonymous with 'serious'. Nothing could be so misleading.”

The players for the Virginia Tech rugby club aren’t varsity athletes, but they are still student-athletes. They represent the university at the highest level of college rugby and are proud to do so.

They toil mostly unnoticed, but still strive to excel at their sport and live up to the tradition set by the teams of the ‘90s. They are proud to wear orange and maroon and proud to play a sport few at their university are familiar with and even fewer understand. They play mostly for pride, but they also play for Virginia Tech.

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