In rugby, the men’s and women’s teams play exactly the same game. There are the same rules, the same setup, and the same plays for both teams despite the gender differences.
At Harvard, the rugby teams are no different. However, the distinction made only this year is the move for the women’s team from a club sport to a varsity one.
“We, as a set of rugby players, very badly want to be playing at the highest level of our sport,” women's co-captain Xanni Brown said. “We believed that the support that being a Harvard [varsity] athletic team gets you can help us play at a level previously not accessible to us.”
Originally, both rugby teams were club sports that were managed by a board of players that made executive decisions regarding everything from practices to team finances.
“We have an undergraduate board of elected members and in addition to that we have several coaches,” said Cody Kiechle, president of the men’s rugby squad. “We’re lucky to have a lot of freedom with the decisions we make. Everything from what uniforms to buy and what games to play in, when to have practices… it’s really all up to the undergraduates.”
The women’s squad has undergone changes since the switch, both regarding administrative details and playing time. However, these changes have helped encourage new players to join the team and have helped the Harvard team’s overall game results.
“[The] varsity transition means we have more access to practice resources, we get more field time…full-time coaches, and more medical treatment,” Brown said. “This is the first year we’ve won an Ivy Championships, and it’s also the first year we’ve beaten Brown and Princeton in quite some time.”
The transition has not only helped the Radcliffe women gain more resources, but has also given the men’s team more to work with as well.
“We see advancing women’s rugby and advancing men’s rugby as totally compatible,” Brown said. “[They] have more access to some of these resources than they have [in the past]. We’ve spent a lot of time discussing with the Athletic Department what the needs of a rugby team are in terms of injury prevention and training and weight lifting. That is not something that either of our teams had three years ago.”
While both teams have seen benefits from the women’s transition to varisty, there are also NCAA compliance restrictions that have made the women’s adjustment more difficult in some respects. According to NCAA rules, new players are required to go to UHS and undergo a complete physical, EKG, and full-impact concussion test—regardless of whether they will be playing a position requiring it—before they get cleared to play. The lengthy process is a detractor for potential new recruits.
“As a club spor, we had a bit more flexibility to choose ourselves what we wanted to do,” Brown said. “One huge unanticipated disadvantage of being varsity is the extent to which the NCAA compliance stuff has made it harder to bring new people on to the team.”
In terms of recruiting, club sports have a disadvantage because there are no preferred admissions for rugby recruits. Nevertheless, both teams have had an increase in new players year by year. The Crimson men’s team has a membership this year of over 50 players.
“All the recruiting is done when students get on campus,” Kiechle said. “We actually have a position on the board dealing specifically with recruiting. We go to the activities fairs, hand out fliers…and we have no cuts. So if you want to play rugby, you can play rugby.”
First founded in 1872, the Harvard Rugby Club has become the largest club on campus and has won two Ivy League Championship titles in the past decade. This success is in part attributable to the large network of alumni support for the Crimson men’s players.
“We’re very fortunate,” Kiechle said. “We have a lot of active alums who come to our games, who support us financially to some regard, and who advise us on rugby decisions about coaching. They’re there every step of the way, really.”
As the women’s team continues to see results from its club-to-varsity switch, the men’s team is content with remaining a club sport, and the team has been successful this fall.
“We’ve been doing really well,” Kiechle said. “The past fall we’ve had a record of 6-2 and the two losses came from Dartmouth, who has been a powerhouse this year. We’ll be playing Cornell in March, and if we win that we’ll be going on to the Ivy Championship.”
The Harvard Rugby Club continues to grow and succeed as a club team. The women’s team advances as a varsity sport have only helped the men’s team in the publicity and recognition of rugby as an increasingly popular sport.
“I think we’ve explored all of our options in the past,” Kiechle said. “We really like where we’re at right now. We have a strong support from a pretty large alumni network, we have a great relationship with the athletics department, and with the newly varsity women’s team.”
—Staff writer Emily T. Wang can be reached at email@example.com.