By the end of the fall season, the Columbia Rugby Football Club was in shambles. After a posting a 1-8 league season with just a lone win over Brown and developing a bad reputation due to poor sideline behavior, trash talking, and dangerous play, the club recognized that change was necessary. When Josh Tobin, CC’13, was elected president in late November, he sat the team down for a talk.
“We talked about the fall, and what we valued as a team,” Tobin said. “It gave us leaders a basis to structure how we wanted to be as a team going forward. It was a really positive thing that brought us together.”
With its recent 75-0 thrashing of Yale and 20-12 win over Fordham on its 50th anniversary weekend, rugby is now a club sport on the rise at Columbia.
The team started 51 years ago when Bill Campbell, current chairman of Columbia’s Board of Trustees, and a number of other former Lions football players founded the club. The team has a storied history—in its first three years, the European Rugby Club team, which plays the European version of the game with seven men on the field, went to three division finals and came away with two championships. Since then, the program has existed in “various levels of seriousness,” according to Tobin.
Three years ago was one of the less serious periods for the club—until members of the executive board decided to join the Ivy Rugby Conference, which was formed in 2009. In their first season, the team went 1-6, good enough for seventh place. In the fall of 2010, the team finished second behind Dartmouth with a 5-2 record.
Tobin and the captains, Alex Plana, CC’13, and Ian Hillman, CC’13, break down the Ivy’s current teams into three tiers. The premier team in the league is Dartmouth, which treats rugby like a varsity sport—it has its own field house, a 70-man roster, five practices a week, and the ability to recruit talent to its campus. The second tier comprises teams with deep rosters: Brown, Harvard, and Princeton. Finally comes the third tier, made up of Yale, Penn, and Cornell.
While the Lions historically fell into the third tier, the recent influx of coaches and dedicated players has moved the program up into the second according to Tobin, as evidenced by the win over Yale. Before, the team had one head coach and only one assistant coach. Now, the coaching staff has expanded to four assistant coaches, two for the forwards and two for the backs.
According to Plana, the coaches are integral to the success of the team—they show up to the two-hour, twice-weekly practices with a routine designed to address any deficiencies from the previous match and help develop the skills of the newer players. Tobin attests to the club’s focus on developing players, citing how many of the team’s players came in with zero rugby experience.
“We do a lot of skills work, and new for this semester there is a focus on the long-term success of the team, like how to maintain possession,” Plana said
The recent success can also be attributed to the team’s recruiting practices on campus.
“We find that with freshmen, they find out about the team by word-of-mouth and different promotions that we hold on campus,” Hillman said.
The players wear their T-shirts and other apparel on campus frequently, and many have been approached about the team when wearing the shirt. The Yale match was the featured event of the spring for the team, and it enjoyed a turnout of about 200 students and fans.
The rugby team has developed into a close-knit group that spends a lot of time together off of the field. They have a number of traditions that include pre-game meals and baking night.
“One of our players really loves to bake, so we turned it into a team thing,” Plana said. “Last semester, before GW, we came up with some complicated white chocolate peanut crumble cake.”
Another highlight is the team’s spring break training in Barbados. A number of rugby teams fly down and play against teams from the Barbados Rugby Football Union. Over the week, there are multiple training sessions every day, allowing the team to take big strides forward in a short amount of time.
Even as the rugby club is trying to become more serious and focused on winning, they continue to be a welcoming group.
“We have debaters, a capella stars, members of most of the fraternities, resident advisers, marathon runners, aspiring Navy SEALS, and a bunch of different majors, ” Tobin said. “Pretty much everyone in our club is involved with other activities and when we’re talking about our experiences, its a unique thing that you can’t find anywhere else on campus.”