Blood, Sweat, and Cheers: A new chapter begins for Rugby at H-SC

by John Dudley ’95

As much of the world turned its gaze to New Zealand this summer to watch the Rugby World Cup, a determined group of young players were taking their home pitch at Hampden-Sydney College, competing not for international acclaim but for the glory of the Tigers and for their love of the game.   

Rugby jumpThis spring, those same Hampden-Sydney rugby players will take the field but with more support and some higher expectations. After decades as only a school club, operating below the radar and by the sheer will of the members, the rugby team is moving under the umbrella of the Athletics Department as a varsity club sport.

Why a “varsity club” sport? Rugby is not sanctioned by the NCAA (the regulating body is USA Rugby), so the College cannot consider rugby a varsity sport. The varsity club designation, however, represents how the College will regard the team and the expectations the College has for the players. Dr. Saranna Thornton, a professor of economics who has been coaching the team off-and-on since she came to the College in 1996, says, “As varsity players, they are playing with a higher level of commitment. They will come to all of the practices; they will play their hardest. They will play in intercollegiate matches. ”

As a part of the Athletics Department, the Rugby Club has been removed from the student organizations budgeting process and will have to raise a majority of its own funding. Also, the team now gets support from the athletic trainers and the Sports Information Office. Building and Grounds will continue to maintain the team’s field behind Venable Hall, which was built using fill dirt from the construction of Bortz Library.  

Thornton says, “It’s the nicest field in college rugby in Virginia. It is beautifully maintained by Buildings and Grounds. Steve Boles, in particular, does a great job. This is a huge improvement from the field along College Road where the team used to play its matches.”

The changes for rugby at Hampden-Sydney correspond with changes to intercollegiate rugby across Virginia. A new conference, under USA Rugby, mirrors the Old Dominion Athletic Conference used by our NCAA sports, so Hampden-Sydney’s conference rivals will include only other Division III schools, such as Roanoke, Emory & Henry, and Randolph-Macon. This is a dramatic change from the College’s historic matches against Longwood, University of Virginia, William & Mary, and University of Richmond. Thornton is excited about going head-to-head against similarly-sized schools.

She says, “Schools that are really D-II or D-I that are playing down a division in rugby will be forced to move to the division that matches their NCAA division. For example, right now VCU is D-III in rugby but D-I in other sports, so their rugby team will have to move up. Next year our conference will be all real D-III teams. This will be much better for us. When you play a team like VCU, with 34,000 students—half of whom are men—it’s tough to compete. We are drawing players from a student body of 1,000. That’s a huge disadvantage. This change really puts us on a level playing field.”

In the late 1960s, rugby was just beginning to gain popularity in the United States. Very few cities—and even fewer schools—had rugby teams. Hampden-Sydney College was one of the first schools in the Commonwealth to field a team.

Rugby 1969Johnny Ellis ’70 was one of the founders of the Rugby Club. After playing rugby for a year in high school, he came to Hampden-Sydney and decided it would be a great environment for the sport. Two years later, in the fall of 1968, he and a small group of guys started the club’s first season.

Ellis says, “Rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the country right now, thanks mostly to the efforts to develop youth teams.”

“When we were getting started, the only two guys on the team who had played rugby before were me and Paul Reiber ’70, who had played the sport when he lived in England for a year. The sport was not very popular with the Athletics Department and we couldn’t play games on campus on Sundays, which was when most of the games were played.”

Reiber, who is now the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Vermont, recalls his early exposure to rugby. “It was the year after I returned to the campus from living in England. While there, my brother and I joined and played for the Harpenden RFC, a club in Hertfordshire about 30 miles north of London. We were both immediately taken with the sport, a combination of brute force and finesse. My role on the pitch tended to the power positions, playing in the scrum as prop, lock and second row; his was more the artist as wing and fullback. There were many good vigorous games we played with teams from and around London, and we found the camaraderie positively infectious. After every game, the host club served a meal in the clubhouse to players and spectators, with plenty of libation and singing. When I returned to Hampden-Sydney, I expressed my interest in the sport to all who would listen, attracting the attention of some of Stokeley Fulton’s players—not happily from his point of view—and discovered that Johnny [Ellis] had developed the same interest in the sport. So we started the club.”
"I think it was thanks to the considerable influence of the great John Brinkley that we were not run off campus that first couple of years, while the leadership in the administration of the College came
around to accept
this different
new club sport."

 - Paul Reiber ’70

Two early supporters of the Rugby Club were John Brinkley ’59, who had developed a love of the game when he studied at Oxford University, and Dr. John Hinchcliff, a philosophy professor who had played the sport in his native country of New Zealand.

Reiber says, “I think it was thanks to the considerable influence of the great John Brinkley that we were not run off campus that first couple of years, while the leadership in the administration of the College came around to accept this different new club sport.”

Dr. Hinchcliff returned to his native New Zealand many years ago (he served for 20 years as the chancellor of Auckland University of Technology) but fondly recalls his years on The Hill. “There was already in place a team with great camaraderie. So, it was a pleasure to be able to join with them and actively play my favorite game. Having played the game for 20 years or so and still young enough to kick the ball around a bit, I felt at home—except for the accent and the body blocks!”

He says Stokeley Fulton may not have fully appreciated having rugby on campus. “I fear the head football coach may have thought I was a foreign oddball. I sought to emphasis the spirit of the game rather than our record of success. I deliberately did not bother to keep an account of our season’s losses and victories. So, when he asked me about our record I could say our results chart was not an issue and I really did not know.”

After Professor Hinchcliff left, there was no real rugby coach until the arrival of Dr. Saranna Thornton. Originally from New England, she had played rugby in college and graduate school. Her love for the game was the perfect fit for the Hampden-Sydney team, which had dwindled dramatically. “When I first came here, there were 16 guys on the rugby team, and team needs 15 to play. Now we have 42 guys, so the team has really grown tremendously.”

Part of that growth is a result of more students coming to college with at least some knowledge of the game. “In the United States, rugby is going through a major transition,” says Thornton. “It is beginning to build up at the high school level. It is the fastest growing sport in the country. One of the things I think we are going to start seeing in the future is more guys coming here who have played rugby before. Right now, we get maybe one guy a year who has played rugby in high school. We see a lot of guys who played sports in high school but didn’t want to commit to an NCAA sport with practice five days a week. They want to play a sport but not with that kind of time commitment. The other kind of guy you see in rugby are guys who came here hoping that they’d be able to play one of the NCAA sports but got cut from the team. They still want to be involved in sports, so they come over to rugby. Because of where rugby is in the United States, good athletes can come over to the sport and pick up the game and play. We have two freshmen who are starting who never played rugby before this year, but they are superb athletes who work hard and who picked up the game very easily.”

Rugby is not just a sport; there is very much a social element to the team. Many of the guys live in the same residence halls, they have an informal table in the Commons, and they socialize together after games.

Rugby is a rough-and-tumble sport. The phrase “Give blood—play rugby” appears on bumper stickers and t-shirts. Despite the physical toll it takes on players, most of them remain on the team from the time they start until they graduate. Ellis is proud to say that he still competes with a local Tidewater team, some 40 years after graduating from college.

Many alumni players continue to stay connected with the Hampden-Sydney team. Each year, alumni return to campus on the Saturday of Greek Week to play with (and against) the current team members. In the rugby tradition, they celebrate together after the game. Now, alumni will be able to follow the team more closely, thanks to its association with the Sports Information Office.

That connection may be vital for the rugby team, as it seeks out new sources of funding. With the change of the team’s official designation as a “varsity club sport,” it becomes responsible for its own fundraising. Starting this spring, the team will no longer be a student club and will not be getting any money from the Student Finance Board; in the past it had been getting $4,000 to cover transportation to matches and tournaments and for equipment. The players will continue to pay dues each semester ($40), half of which will go toward the liability insurance required by USA Rugby. The players are provided their jerseys but buy their own cleats, shorts, and any additional personal equipment they may want, such as protective headgear. Thornton and Ellis hope to raise $10,000 annually for the team to cover transportation costs and equipment.

Plans for the future of rugby at Hampden-Sydney include hosting a high school rugby tournament on campus and, if Johnny Ellis gets his way, the team will travel and play overseas as it has done in the past. Ellis first took the club on a tour in 1971 to play three local clubs in Nassau.

“That was an unbelievable experience,” he recalls, “exactly the kind of thing we want to do with the club in the next few years. Traveling abroad is a tremendous educational experience, and playing rugby in a place where kids grow up around the game takes the sport to a new level.”

Thornton echoes this sentiment. She says, “Playing abroad is very beneficial for U.S. teams because the level of rugby in places like Ireland, Wales, England, Scotland—places where kids grow up playing rugby—is very different. For our guys  to be able to go over there and see how rugby is played, and to see a culture where rugby is as important as football is here, is really transformative. Also, as a faculty member, I think it is very valuable for students to go abroad with a professor.”

For a team that has persevered for many years through the efforts of students alone, these are remarkable times. Some of the changes may prove challenging, but the opportunities that come with them are equally exciting. 

Rugy team