Worldwide, many consider rugby to be the second most popular sport only to soccer. In countries like New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland, rugby is the sport of choice and often invites a cult-like following. In the United States, however, rugby does not reign supreme. The Cal Poly men’s club rugby team is working to change that.
According to Cal Poly rugby head coach and rugby team alumnus Nick Massman, rugby has the contact of football, the fast pace of basketball and the mentality of soccer. Cal Poly’s club rugby team has been around since the 1960s and has become more professional in time, Massman said.
Typically the Cal Poly rugby team carries more than 75 players. In regular play, 15 of those players are on the field, and seven players are on reserve. Physical contact is a hallmark of rugby, and consequently six to 12 players on the Cal Poly team are injured on any given day with ailments ranging from broken fingers and dislocated shoulders, to blown out knees and concussions.
Collin Malcolm, a senior on the rugby team, has played for Cal Poly for three years and said the physicality of the sport is what builds strong bonds among players.
“In rugby, the bond is different than in any other sport,” Malcom said. “You work out like crazy, you compete on the field together … it’s literally ‘blood, sweat and tears’ with your teammates. That’s something you don’t get from other sports.”
Massman agrees, and said it takes a “special breed” of athlete to make it as a rugby player. Many players on the Cal Poly rugby team have participated in different sports, like football or wrestling, but choose to play only rugby.
“The commitment of rugby players at Cal Poly is greater than the commitment of other athletes,” Massman said. “It’s really a ‘for love of the game’ sort of scenario; we do what other sports teams do with a lot less resources.”
Resources for club teams at Cal Poly are minimal, and most rugby coaches volunteer their time or are compensated with a small stipend, Massman said. The players pay their own way to tournaments and are responsible for their equipment, though some expenses are taken care of with donations and fundraising.
Massman does not necessarily want rugby to become a university-sponsored sport because he’s not overly concerned with “what we call (rugby),” just that it’s being played. Rather, he would love for the university to be more involved.
“We’ve got a good program, but sometimes it’s a battle just to secure practice fields,” Massman said. “As a club team, we are fifth in hierarchy of securing facilities — behind athletics, academic classes, intramurals and even the general student population.”
University support with regards to admissions influence would be crucial in securing top rugby players for the Cal Poly program, Massman said. Massman gets hundreds of résumés and reels from athletes interested in his program every year, and having some sort of pull in the admissions process would make securing them as players much easier, he said.
National recognition for the program would also help the Cal Poly rugby team secure talented players and financial support. If Cal Poly wins its upcoming tournament, this would be a reality.
On Feb. 13, the Cal Poly rugby team will participate in the Las Vegas Invitational (LVI), a rugby tournament for all skill levels running in conjunction with the USA Sevens International Tournament and Festival.
Andy Doukas, the Cal Poly sevens coach, said while the field size is the same (as it is in 15s), the type of play in sevens is quite different.
“Sevens is faster and more open than 15s,” Doukas said. “The players must be fast, quick to tackle and all-around skilled. Sevens rugby requires a high quality of player because the play is so physically demanding,”
Dominic Ferri is one of only two freshmen chosen to compete in the sevens tournament. Sevens rugby is the “ultimate team game” and requires a different mentality than 15s, Ferri said.
“In sevens you must be more patient, more relaxed,” Ferri said. “You’re watching, waiting for the other team to make a mistake then capitalizing on it. The game moves quick and when you score it’s not because of something you did, it’s because of something your teammate did to help you.”
For the Invitational Massman and Doukas have put together a mix of 12 players to compete in the tournament. All other team members will attend as well, but will play in matches unrelated to the sevens tournament.
Cal Poly has been included in what the coaches are deeming “the pool of death” — facing off against Eastern Washington, Bowling Green and Texas Tech. While it will be a tough competition for Cal Poly, the coaches are optimistic.
“If we can make it through our ‘pool play’ we can make it through any other match,” Massman said. “It will be a true grit fight for the championship.”
Winners of the LVI will qualify for the USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championship to be held in Philadelphia in June 2011. The championship match will broadcast on NBC.
“It would be awesome to be televised,” Massman said. “It would be great exposure for the players, for the club, for the program. Plus, it would be a way for scouts to hear about Cal Poly players, since sevens rugby will be included in the 2013 Olympic games.”
Malcolm also said he hopes Cal Poly wins the sevens tournament and makes it to the championship in June.
“Recognition for the school and program would be awesome, but come on — it would just be really cool to be on TV, too.”