Cover Photo Credit: Minnesota Gophers Rugby
Preface: For top football recruits, deciding on where to go play in college may make or break their professional career. Universities are persistent in recruiting the top talent to their programs with extensive scouting, trips, and promises to student athletes. After all, football is a big money maker with the top 25 most valuable NCAA teams bringing in revenues of over $2.5 billion in 2018.
All of these universities have rugby programs as well, but the recruiting landscape is very different. While football is the NCAA's largest sports product, the organization does not even sponsor rugby, the father of football. Rugby clubs are governed by USA Rugby, and team members usually sign up to participate on their own instead of being actively recruited.
Professionally, many college football players transition to the National Football League where the median salary is $860,000, while rugby players have limited options. Major League Rugby is still in its infancy (starts their fourth season in March 2021), and trying to grow steadily to provide reasonable opportunities for players. The other option is to play overseas where only a few Americans have been good enough to play along English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, South African, and other players from foreign rugby-centric countries.
Yet, people like Brian Moynihan (CEO of Bank of America), Mark Cuban (Owner of the Dallas Mavericks), and former U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, played collegiate rugby at Brown, Indiana, Yale, and Oxford respectively. How could a sport with no NCAA sponsorship, easy money to professionally make, or massive American popularity compared to other sports produce strong impacts for its alumni above and provide any benefit to those that are interested in playing?
Arch Jones is a former collegiate rugby athlete who has just the answer. Enjoy his thoughts in the guest article below.
-Carson, Stadium Gear & Apparel
Building Lifelong Skills: What College Rugby Taught Me and Why Everyone Should Consider Playing
By Arch Jones
Often when I tell someone I played rugby in college, they raise an eyebrow and ask me how many injuries I’ve suffered. While it’s a lighthearted question and meant to poke fun, it perfectly illustrates an outsider's perspective of the sport. To the uninitiated, rugby is a violent, hopelessly confusing hodgepodge of American football and soccer. More like a giant game of kill-the-carrier than a thoughtful and strategic sport.
While some criticism is valid (there is a clear difference in the level of technique between a local men’s club and South Africa’s Springboks), the same could be said about any contact sport when the majority of it’s players don’t pick it up until college. It’s one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, and with a surge of new players, it’s bound to look sloppy sometimes.
That’s the beauty of rugby.
Photo Credit: Katie Walsh Photography
Few athletes play football, baseball, or soccer past high school, fewer still beyond college. Our sport is different. I was 20 the first time I touched a rugby ball, and 24 before I scored my first try [score in rugby similar to a touchdown] in an actual match. My case is surprisingly common, but I’ve seen lots of stories. Sometimes it’s because a player suffered a career-ending injury that forced them out of another sport. Others lost their NCAA eligibility for some reason. There are a few that transition simply for a new challenge.
I had been homeschooled throughout high school and never had the opportunity to play a competitive sport. Sure, I was in the weight room with friends most days of the week, but it didn’t feel the same. I wanted to be an athlete, and more importantly, be part of a team. Intramurals weren’t cutting it. I craved the excitement of traveling to a rival school, suiting up in a real uniform, and celebrating with my brothers after a great win or tough loss.
Arch's First Match with St. Cloud State University
I found the sport by way of introduction from a coworker. He would come to work bruised and banged up some days, but always talked about playing with a grin. He also happened to go to the same university as I did. From what I’d heard, it was hard hitting, and a ton of fun. One afternoon I finally summoned the courage to ask if I could tag along to practice. I didn’t know if I would have to try out to make the team, or get laughed off the pitch. His response?
With no prior experience in any sport, I had no skills that I could adapt over to rugby. Many soccer players find kicking pretty intuitive. Football players understand the physicality the game demands. The extent of my knowledge was a few clicks on YouTube. I knew I was going to suck that first day. And I did. I also sucked the next week, and the week after that. I’m still learning now, in fact. But that was the first lesson this sport taught me: just because you’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
Collegiate rugby has no gatekeeping. You aren’t going to get kicked off the team for whiffing a tackle or messing up a set piece. That’s why in the Spring there are so many tournaments and friendly matches used to get new players up to speed. Don’t know the rules? Who cares, neither does half the team you’re playing against. All you have to do is show up, play hard, and try your best to get better.
Arch's First Match with St. Cloud State University
Another thing I’ve learned is that the rugby culture is incredibly inclusive. While I won’t pretend that we’re perfect (I’m in a Facebook group for ruggers of color sharing their experiences with racism inside of the sport), overall rugby attracts people who don’t fit into conventional boxes. We’re a community of non-athletes, troubled athletes, LGBTQ members, and players of different body types, races and ethnicities. In many respects, we’re ahead of the curve.
The Moke Bois Rugby Team
The last thing that rugby taught me is less of a life lesson and more of an experience: sportsmanship. This term gets thrown around in plenty of different arenas, but in rugby it rings truest. Your school got trounced 100-0 this afternoon? Doesn’t matter, you’re still going to the bar (or a house party if you’re under 21) and sharing a beer with the other team later tonight.
Your opponent’s down two players at a tournament? Don’t worry, the coach is going to make a couple of you put on their kit and play on the other side. I’ve thrown on another school’s jersey and played 80 minutes of hard rugby with players whose names I’ve never learned.
Because everyone is welcome, all active members of the rugby community won’t necessarily be players. Injured and out for the season? Go run water to your teammates between scores. Physicality of the sport a little much for you? That’s fine, we’re always looking for touch judges and referees. There’s a spot waiting for you in some capacity, and if there isn’t, you get to create one. There’s opportunities beyond college too--I’ve had more fun playing in a men's league post graduation than I had while at Saint Cloud State University.
In rugby there’s no such thing as starting too late. Many find the sport in their late 30’s or early 40’s. There are divisions for all skill levels, so if you want to play a bit more recreationally, you have the option. And with touch leagues, it’s not uncommon to see a few 50 or 60 year old’s on the pitch. But take it from a 25 year old who’s enjoying it more now than he ever has been:
Arch Training the Minnesota Gophers Rugby Team
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Arch Jones played for the Fighting Carp at St. Cloud State University while getting his degree in art. He is a personal trainer for Anoka-Ramsey Community College Volleyball and hosts his own sports and lifestyle podcast with his fiancee Ashlyn called Anywhere Athletes. Check out their show with interviews including Connor Wallace-Sims (professional rugby player for Rugby United New York), Sam Dancer (CrossFit athlete), and John Beam (2019 CCCA Coach of the Year and featured coach on Season 5 of Netflix's Last Chance U).
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