It’s a perfect fall Saturday on campus. The trees are ablaze with orange and red leaves. Sunshine peeks through the clouds. The crack of someone’s nose breaking fills the air.
It’s rugby season.
“C’mon,” Shaun Gaffney screams, his voice echoing off the hillsides. “We’re making one mistake after another.”
In the grassy plain behind the Cintas Center that is used for recreational sports, the University’s rugby team is scrumming against Ashland College. Gaffney, the team’s fourth-year head coach, isn’t happy with what he is seeing, but that will change. By the end of the game, the team earns a 41-7 win, every player has a chance to play and the only major damage is to the once-straight nose of a Xavier player.
While fall Saturdays on many campuses are synonymous with football, for nearly 30 years at Xavier they’ve been more commonly associated with rugby, the rough-hewn forbearer of American football. With all the violence of the Americanized version but with none of the padding, the sport has managed to attract a portion of the campus population and entrench itself as arguably the most popular non- varsity sport at the University.
Although it’s a low-budget club sport—placing it somewhere between the intramurals and varsity levels—it regularly draws larger crowds than many varsity sports. The people spread themselves out on the hillsides overlooking the fields, coming and going as the game progresses. And it’s popularity is growing, as Gaffney has begun instilling something new to the team’s attitude—seriousness.
“I’m trying to get rid of the image that rugby’s played by a bunch of drunken bums,” he says.
It’s a tough challenge. Gaffney, though, is a rugby purist and wants to build up the beauty of the sport itself instead of its after-game reputation. He’s instilled an off-season conditioning program, added an assistant coach, Chuck Tunnacliff, who played on the U.S. rugby team, and stepped up the team’s schedule to include playing local men’s teams as well as college teams in higher divisions.
“When I took over the coaching duties four years ago, the team was winless,” Gaffney says. “I told them that if they got in shape and just played some fundamentally sound rugby, it wouldn’t take much to win at this level. And we have. This year we’ve progressed a great deal, and if they put their minds to it, they can progress even more.”
The seriousness he’s instilling has its drawbacks, though. He’s lost some players who were unhappy about having their positions usurped , as well as a few players who were more interested in the non-serious side of the sport.
“They realized they could still party but didn’t have to run sprints,” he says.
In their place, though, he’s found people who are interested in the competition and winning. And lots of them. At times this year, more than 40 players have been at practices. It’s quite a change from years past, when the team struggled to have enough players to field a squad.
The rise of rugby began at Xavier, ironically, as a result of the fall of football. When the University eliminated football from its athletic programs in 1973, it agreed to honor each player’s scholarship if he wanted to stay. While most players declined and transferred elsewhere, some players decided to forgo football and simply study. A few of those former football players, though, quickly found themselves in need of an outlet for their athletic skills, and their solution was to form a rugby team. It not only provided an outlet for aggression, it came with something even better: a built-in excuse to party.
A longstanding rugby tradition stemming from the sport’s early days in England and Ireland holds that the home team plays host to its guests after each game with dinner and beer. Play hard on the field, but once the game is over, return to civility. That tradition was changed somewhat once it made its way to the collegiate level, however, and mostly began focusing just on the beer.
“If you couldn’t beat them on the field, you tried to beat them at the bar,” says Bill Strietmann, a 1977 graduate and one of the founding team members who’s been affiliated with the program in the years since.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration, Strietmann adds, to say that more than a few team members over the years were on the team simply for the after-game party. It’s also not an exaggeration to say that on more than one occasion team members have found themselves staring at University administrators who were unhappy with their antics.
“I think that can be said of every college rugby club in America,” Gaffney says.
Still, the sport has managed to survive at Xavier, and if Gaffney has his way, it will prosper as well. Broken noses and all.