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 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
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