Living the American Dream: Playing Rugby at a US College

If you have dreams and ambitions of attending an American university and would love to play rugby whilst you’re there then this post is for you! I will cover everything from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to scholarships with expert insight from Tony Brown, head coach at Vassar College and 2018 USA Rugby Collegiate Coach of the Year.

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USA
Glendale

USA College Rugby

College sport in the USA is renowned for leading the way in terms of professionalism and funding. It is highly organised with universities and colleges having athletics departments with full time staff, including coaches, administrators all the way to trainers and physios. Sports that are sanctioned and funded by athletics departments are known as Varsity Sports. At the NCAA division 1 and 2 scholarships are only available to varsity sport players.

In the USA, rugby is primarily a club sport played on college campuses and on the whole does not have varsity status. This means that students pay fees and fundraise to cover most of the expenses. It is much like universities in the UK, Australia or Canada for example where students run the clubs with some administrative help. Therefore, the majority of rugby teams just don’t have the finances to offer scholarships. Nevertheless, more and more programmes are now being identified as varsity and receiving substantial funding from their schools. In particular, the women’s game is seeing a strong rise in popularity.

Scholarships

US universities can be expensive! Fees can range from $5000 per year at a community college, all the way up to $80,000 each year at a private university. The only way for a lot of people, particularly international students, to attend a US institution is through a scholarship of some form. A college sports scholarship allows many to play the sport they love at an elite level whilst earning a degree at the same time, sounds great, doesn’t it.

Below I will answer the most frequently asked questions I get when asked about rugby scholarships:

What Kind of Scholarships Are Out There?

Scholarships can range from anywhere up to a full ride scholarship, meaning that you can attend a US university for free! These are pretty rare, rugby scholarships also include tuition grants, fee waivers or in-state tuition rates for out-of-state students.

Which Colleges Offer Rugby Scholarships?

32 schools sponsored varsity rugby teams in 2019. This link will direct you to a page that outlines which university’s offered scholarships with links to the institutions official websites.

How Do I Get a Rugby Scholarship?

Like a lot of things, you can go on your own and make enquiries directly to coaches of colleges that you like the look of. Alternatively, you can let the experts help and guide you along the way. Agencies have extensive knowledge and contacts within the collegiate sports system with proven track records of getting potential athletes scholarships to universities. They will charge a fee but it is potentially worth the many thousands you could save with a scholarship. It really all depends on yours and your family’s financial situation. If you can afford to do it, agencies can be a great route. If you can’t quite afford to go down that route then it is most definitely still possible to get a scholarship so don’t be put off! 

What Level Do I Need To Be At?

From an athletic ability point of view, obviously college coaches are after the best possible athletes they can find. Having said that, rugby is still an emerging sport in the states and so players coming from the UK, Australia and NZ may be at a slightly higher level than homegrown talent. Ultimately, there is only one way to find out.

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On the academic side, as a general rule of thumb NCAA div 1 schools have a greater focus on sport vs academics. You would be expected to train 6 times a week as well as games. However some Division one colleges, such as Yale and Harvard have a stronger focus on academics. Having a high enough grade point average (GPA) or SAT/ACT score is one of the most overlooked aspects of the recruitment process. Even if you’re the best player in your state or country, if you don’t have the right grades, you will simply not be NCAA eligible and won’t get into the university you desire. 

If you’re serious about a scholarship it’s vital that you do your own research and understand the nuances between the different divisions. An important question to ask yourself is ‘would I be happy here if I got injured and couldn’t participate in sport?’ Figure out your ideal academics-sport ratio and go from there. The earlier you can get prepared the better. If you dream of attending a US university and obtaining a highly sought after scholarship then it’s never too early to start preparing both physically and academically. 

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Opportunities to Play Rugby Without A Scholarship

Scholarships are obviously great if you can get one but they’re not the be all and end all. Being a club sport, the majority of college students playing rugby will not be on a scholarship. Obtaining a degree from a world class institution is what you go to university for and not having a scholarship doesn’t stop you playing sports. After all, the odds of getting a rugby scholarship aren’t in your favour unfortunately. But, don’t let not getting a sports scholarship stop you from reaping the undoubted benefits of playing rugby.

Research about other scholarships at the universities you’re looking at. Many institutions have very niche scholarships that no one knows about. I’d suggest contacting the financial aid department of each university and picking their brains about different financial avenues. 

The Benefits of Playing College Rugby

1. Future employers look for intangibles

A study by EY Women Athletes Business Network and espnW surveyed more than 400 female executives in five countries. They found that over half (52%) played a sport at college or university level. Sport instills the skills that employers want.

2. Life lessons

College athletes learn vital life skills such as leadership, confidence, time management and teamwork. There’s no better place to learn selflessness and leadership than on the pitch.

3. Relationships

You will make friends for life. Building and maintaining relationships is an invaluable skill that playing any sport fosters within you. The relationships you build with teammates, coaches and professors are the people that will help you find jobs, write references and even come to your wedding!

As well as these undoubted benefits that rugby can provide for your future there are also tonnes of benefits whilst you’re there. The sporting facilities at colleges in the USA are some of the best in the world. College sport is fiercely followed in the USA, you will even get fans at your rugby games but maybe not the 100,000 that watch the University of Michigan american football team at every home game!

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Beyond College Rugby

The recent introduction of Major League Rugby (MLR) now represents a clear pathway from college rugby into a professional set up. 2020 will see the first ever MLR draft, and represents a crucial step in the pathway to professional rugby.

“Collegiate rugby has a rich history in the United States with over 900 active teams across the country. The immense talent in our Colleges and Universities has shown itself over the past three seasons and is only poised to grow. We are truly excited about creating this pathway for the next generation of MLR players,” said MLR Commissioner, George Killebrew.

Future of College Rugby

The future of college rugby is bright, as a sport rugby is one of the largest and continually growing club sports in the USA. Particularly with women’s rugby which has been adopted as an emerging NCAA sport. An emerging sport is one that is recognised by the NCAA as a sport that is gaining popularity. It is intended to help universities provide more athletics opportunities for women and more sport-sponsorship options for the institutions, and also help that sport achieve NCAA championship status. Since then the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA) has been set up to help more universities establish their varsity rugby programmes.

Now is the perfect time to start your American College adventure. Take a look at our USA location page, find a state or city that you like the look of and start finding colleges that appeal to you.

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Coach Profile: Tony Brown, Vassar College.

I recently had a chat with Tony Brown, the first full time collegiate rugby coach of both a men’s and a women’s program in the United States (1995 Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY). Tony provides insightful commentary and expertise into US college rugby below.

Prior to coming to the United States, Brown played in England for St. Luke’s College, Exeter, and then Wasps. Brown moved to the United States in 1984 and played for Northern Virginia (NOVA) and was selected to the 1985 Potomac Rugby Union (PRU) select side composed of players from the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Brown retired from playing in 1986 following injury.

From 1986-95 Brown coached the George Mason University men’s team in Fairfax, Virginia, and compiled a 110-52-6 overall record. Brown’s teams beat several eastern powers including Army, Navy, and Penn State as well as twice winning the St. Patrick’s Day Tournament and finishing runner-up at the Cherry Blossom, West Virginia University, and Commonwealth Cup tournaments. GMU finished the 1995 season ranked No. 3 in the Eastern Rugby Union (ERU).

For the past 25 years, since 1995, Brown has coached and guided the Vassar College Men and Women. The men have compiled 20 winning seasons with a further 3 at .500 and in that same period the women have put together 24 winning seasons. His teams have been on 15 overseas tours, won conference championships in 15s and 7s, won prestigious tournaments, been perennial playoff competitors and in 2018 the Vassar Women won the USA Rugby National Fall Division II Championship. The men’s overall record is 259-189-12 and the women’s record is 375-113-12.

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What’s it Like Coaching at a US University?

Coaching a university or college team in the U.S. is an absolute joy. The students are eager to learn and for many it is a new sport so they are all ears! The students work ethic is exemplary and once the team culture is established rapid strides can be made. What students lack in experience and knowledge is compensated by their enthusiasm.

What Advice Would You Give to Someone Wanting to Play College Rugby?

A student wanting to play in the U.S. should immerse him or herself in the institution and embrace the academic opportunity and the culture of the institution while enjoying their rugby as a player.

What do You Foresee Happening With College Rugby in the Next Decade?

Once 40 universities/colleges choose to adopt Women’s Rugby as a varsity sport the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) will most probably endorse it and there could be massive growth as other institutions decide this is a great opportunity. The impetus of 7s with the successes of the Men’s and Women’s National Teams and the advent of Major League Rugby will also continue to raise the profile of the sport. Men’s collegiate programs may not be elevated to Varsity level but will continue to thrive. The past 20 years has seen the creation of national championships in 15s and 7s, improved facilities and a growth in high school rugby. The seeds have been planted and the US has a population that can accommodate another major sport so with good funding and stewardship the future is very bright.

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List of Top Men’s and Women’s College Rugby Teams

Division 1A MenNIRA Teams Women
California BerkleyArmy
Life UniversityHarvard
Sain’t Mary’sDartmouth
LindenwoodQuinnipiac
NavyNotre Dame College
Central WashingtonWest Chester
Arkansas StateBrown
KutztownQueens
BYUMount St. Marys
ArizonaAmerican International
DavenportSacred Heart
Notre Dame CollegeColby-Sawyer
ArmyBowdoin
Penn StateNorwich
UCLAUni New England
IndianaNew England College
Ohio State
Grand Canyon
St. Bonaventure
Colorado

Who Run The World? – The Rapid Rise of Women’s Rugby

Women’s rugby has been on the rise in recent years, the most recent World Rugby review in 2018 found that ‘in total 2.4 million women and girls are playing rugby at all levels, accounting for more than a quarter (26 per cent) of players globally and an increase in player numbers of 60 per cent since 2013’. 

The participation rates in both rugby sevens and the 15 a side game has close to 500,000 new players joining every year globally. According to World Rugby, women’s rugby is growing faster than men’s rugby and it is estimated that by 2026, 40% of the total number of rugby players will be female. 

While women’s rugby remains a predominantly amateur, minority sport — it is a burgeoning one played in over 80 countries. Support from governing bodies is rapidly increasing as they recognise that women’s rugby will help grow the game.

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Why Has Women’s Rugby Seen Such a Rise?

World Rugby have been driving in recent years to accelerate the global growth of women in rugby. In 2017 they set out an ambitious plan to double the number of registered players worldwide. In the first year of the plan the number of registered female players grew by an impressive 28 percent to 581,000. It is clear that world rugby is actively increasing funding and resources into women’s rugby and they are seeing the results.

The ‘Women In Rugby’ initiative from World Rugby with the campaign ‘try and stop us’ is a clear demonstration of World Rugby’s ambitions for women’s rugby. World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said that “by launching this unique brand identity and proposition we are demonstrating our unwavering commitment to growing participation and exposure for women’s rugby around the globe”. These sentiments were reiterated by World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont with his triumphant comments: “We firmly believe that the development of women in rugby is the single greatest opportunity for our sport to grow in the next decade’.

“We are demonstrating our unwavering commitment to growing participation and exposure for women’s rugby around the globe.”

SIR BILL BEAUMONT – WORLD RUGBY CHAIRMAN

Further success can be seen in increased diversity at the highest level with the introduction of 17 new female members to its council. Moreover, the next World Cup in 2021 to be hosted by New Zealand will be the first to not be gender assigned. All future World Cups, whether for men or women, will be known as the Rugby World Cup followed by the year designation.

The introduction of rugby sevens to the Olympics has undoubtedly been one of the key factors in the rise of women’s rugby. Sevens has led to a rise in popularity of the sport, particularly in emerging nations. With the Olympics comes investment from national governing bodies, rugby now has greater credibility on a global stage. It is estimated that £20 million was invested into rugby by national Olympic committees after sevens was announced as an Olympic sport. Sevens is a great introduction to rugby and provides a gateway to playing the standard 15 a side game. 

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Where Can I Play Women’s Rugby?

Wherever you are in the world, you have a pretty good chance of finding a rugby club. With the sport being played in over 80 countries from all over the world. This number continues to rise as rugby becomes more recognised globally. Due to numbers and resources, the more common form of the game is 7’s, however more and more 15’s competitions are emerging in all nations.

Recognising the incredible growth in women’s rugby the Women’s Rugby Super Series has increased from four to five teams. These are some of the best women’s teams in the world and where rugby is most popular. Below I have outlined a number of the leading nations:

England

In England, the RFU now boasts professional programmes for both the sevens and 15s teams. This hopes to boost the development of the game at not only the top but also at the grassroots. They are looking to double the number of female participants by 2021, increase the number of women’s teams by more than 75% to 800 and host 400 active women’s clubs. The RFU also aims to increase the number of women referees, coaches and volunteers across the entire sport.

The women’s premiership secured £2.4 million of investment in 2017, the biggest financial contribution the women’s club game has seen. This represents the clear top down support the women’s game is receiving in England.

Australia

In Australia, Super Rugby W is the top level of women’s rugby. The teams replicate their male counterparts – NSW Waratahs, Queensland Reds, Brumbies, Melbourne Rebels and Rugby WA. Fox Sports shows every Super W game and this has increased the marketability of women’s rugby in Australia. The league has successfully filled the gap between the club and international game.

New Zealand

The top level of women’s rugby in New Zealand is the Farah Palmer Cup, which runs in a provincial format much like the men’s Mitre 10 cup. At the international level, the Black Ferns lead the pack, having won 5 of the past 6 World Cups. 

North America

The USA and Canada both have women’s rugby programmes that are as (if not more) successful than the men’s teams. In college sport women’s rugby has been recognised by the main governing body the NCAA as an emerging sport. This means that more funding is available to women’s rugby and the number of scholarships given is rising every year.

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girls rugby

A Final Word

Women’s rugby has come a long way from the days when women had to play in secret to avoid public pressure and societal issues. Thankfully as a society women’s role in sport has dramatically changed. But there is still a long way to go until women’s sport is put on a level playing field with their male counterparts. As a rugby player and fan I am proud that World Rugby is recognising the imperative role that women will play in the growth of the sport we love.

Recently, I spoke to Alex and Tamara who both hail from England but have found a love for rugby on the other side of the world in Byron Bay on Australia’s east coast.

It is thanks to strong and empowering women like Tamara and Alex, whose stories you can read about below, that are encouraging more and more women and girls in their local areas to play rugby.

 Read Alex and Tamara’s experiences of playing rugby in Australia and the rise of women’s rugby.

Alex

Byron Bay Bullets


Tamara

Byron Bay Bullets

Player Profile: Tamara – Byron Bay Bullets RFC

I am Tam, originally from Devon in the UK but have been living in Australia for the last 8 years but have only got back into Rugby the last 2 – 3 years. I was president of the first women’s rugby team in Byron Bay Rugby Club’s 120 year history. 

How Did You Get Introduced to Rugby? 

Rugby was never a sport I was ever thinking of rejoining after school but I met the coach and some of the girls who started the small team at a friend’s birthday. It was actually a dare to see if I would join and attend a training session between my friendship group. I never thought I would enjoy it as much as I did but it’s oddly addictive! 

How Did You Get Into Playing?

I went to the first group training session and loved it, I couldn’t wait for the next one. I committed from day one and had so much fun. Meeting other sporty girls like me (mostly internationals) but some Aussies too so it was a good mix. 

As we were a new team and in a regional area without many other teams around, we had some friendly games but generally had to travel a few hours to other states to get games underway at first. 

After our first year of training hard, some local news interviews and a little community spirit – we started spreading the word and local teams in the nearby zones contacted us. By our second year, we were involved in a full season of games, competing against 9 other teams in 2019.

What Are The Biggest Misconceptions About Women’s Rugby?

“You aren’t strong enough”. “This is a man’s sport”. This is unfortunately something we hear all too often. With the right leadership, training and support – Women have and will continue to show that we are more than capable to take this further and further and expand and grow this sport. 

What Do You Love Most About Playing Rugby? 

THE TEAM & CLUB!! I have never been a part of such a humble, powerful, committed group of strangers in my life. 

In such a short space of time, this helped me develop new friendships and also for me personally, brought me and old friends together! Being a team, supporting each other, lifting each other up and having your teammates back each other – it’s such a special community. 

At first, it was really hard to be taken seriously in such a male dominated sport and club. We had to work extremely hard to feel like we were ONE club and not divided by gender. We had to show we were there for the long run and were willing to put in the work to progress and make the club proud. 

Byron Bay also hosts an international 7’s competition every year in October so the organisation and preparation for this was very rewarding and fun. Getting the community together, raising money for local charities, getting volunteers involved and bringing the town alive for this annual sporting event was pretty special. We had teams from all over the world join us (Tonga, Vanuatu, New Zealand, Singapore and all over Australia). 

Why Do You Think Women’s Rugby Has Seen Such a Rise in Recent Years?

The sooner we see women and men as equal the better. Personally, the more women have persisted to show what we are capable of, the more we have been accepted into this mainly male dominated sport. We have made news headlines, shown enormous growth, progression and strength and it’s inspiring for the younger generations to come – to be brave and resilient.

Would You Recommend Playing Rugby Overseas to Other Women? 

110% YES!!! This brings a whole new concept to working and living overseas. Your team becomes your family. You develop life long friendships, see everyone go through highs and lows but at the end of the day you are in it together. Injuries, hangovers, growth (personal and team), the wins, the losses, team building – the lot!

Player Profile: Alex – Byron Bay Bullets RFC

Hello I’m Alex. I’m 27, I’m originally from England and I came over to Australia at the end of 2017 with a working holiday visa, planning to travel and work for the rest of the year. Surprise surprise, I’m still here two and a half years later! 

It was Byron Bay I really fell in love with, and I love my life of work, surf, chill and fun in paradise. Outside of rugby I’m a bit of everything at the moment – personal trainer, partnerships/ PR manager and building an acting career!

How Did You Get Introduced to Rugby?

I actually played as a mini, so primary school age, in England! I have two younger brothers so anything they could do I wanted to do better. I remember being the only girl in the team playing tag rugby until I was U11, then we had to split from the boys and I gave up to focus on swimming. There were only 3 girls, so there wasn’t even a proper chance to pursue it back then. I am a big international rugby fan, and even though I stopped playing, my love for the sport was maintained through my dad and family always playing and supporting. I ADORE going to Twickenham in England and the whole atmosphere of watching the sport. Rugby spectators are the best.

How Did You Get Into Playing?

I started playing again in Byron Bay! A friend I worked with suggested I come and play tag, which Aussies play in the rugby union off season. It was actually this social side of Byron that I think kept me here. I found my love for it and skills really hadn’t totally gone, so it was awesome to pick it up and rekindle a fire I didn’t even know was there! Then I met Tamara and Katie, who told me there was a women’s 7s team, The Bullets…! I was not expecting to ever play contact rugby but, low and behold, within a month I’d been asked to be the team captain and had an amazing group of women that I got to train with and play matches with. It was actually kind of scary to play again, and I’ll never forget the first game of tears in the first half! But I’ll also never forget the comeback in the second, where the whole team just came together and smashed it to find this amazing belief in each other.

What Are The Biggest Misconceptions About Women’s Rugby?

Probably that you become super manly and hench. This is not the case – rugby requires agility, flexibility, strength and speed. Our team is certainly the perfect example of all shapes and sizes. Yes you need strength and size on the team, but two training sessions and one 7s match a week does not make women bulky or muscly.

I think another misconception is that you need to know the rules before trying it, or need to have played before. This isn’t the case, I would recommend trying some training sessions and getting a feel for it that way. 

Often everyone is at the same level of thinking they should know more, but with consistency and support we built a team last year from girls who had never played to a team that was a serious contender by the end of the season.

Thirdly, there is a fear around contact and getting hurt. I’m not going to lie, you can get injured (I fractured my sternum last year!). But we do everything we can by learning technique to prevent this from happening. Tackling is also FUN, and when you’re in the game you just go for it and feel the adrenaline kick in to sprint over the line or get in an awesome position to pass the ball.

What Do You Love Most About Playing Rugby?

The TEAM! Training with a team is the best exercise you can do for your soul and fitness. I adore it. I love the people, the work ethic, the support, the laughs! When someone isn’t feeling it, you’ve got a whole group there ready to pull you through the other side. If I’m ever not feeling like training, I literally drag myself there and within 2 minutes of seeing everyone I’m grinning again. 

I also love the challenge and new skills I’ve learned – crikey, it takes mental capacity too. To have coordination and communicate and pass and catch accurately. For me, I’ve also loved being a captain. Being able to see so much improvement in the team, who all pretty much started as beginners at the start of the season. By the end of it the changes were INSANE.

I have made an entire group of friends through rugby and it really brings you close to people you would never meet otherwise. That’s the other love – the social side! We get the boys and girls all together on match days and it’s pretty wild. If you like a bevvy but can’t catch a ball, join up regardless.

Why do you think women’s rugby has seen such a rise in recent years?

I think the media has done a great job of putting women’s rugby on a level playing field with the men’s. We now have televised tournaments with the same name as the boys – finally girls are seeing role models they can relate to rather than be scared of a sport which didn’t have the female touch before.

Would you recommend playing rugby overseas to other women?

YESYESYESYES. I found a new family here – if in doubt, just try it. Beginner, intermediate, expert – we are all in it together.