Rough and Unpampered, Rugby Rolls On

Spirits were high as the bus carried the men’s rugby team back to Cambridge after a win over regional powerhouse Middlebury two weekends ago. Harvard eked out an 8-3 win in 30-degree weather on key scores from juniors Tim Dore and Tre Sayle.

“It was the coldest game I’ve ever played in,” said junior co-captain Jake Kersey.

An observer traveling with the team on the way back to Cambridge may have first been struck by the smell—the team has no place to shower after the game—and then by the lack of alcohol in the post-game celebration.

After all, the rugby team gained a reputation for partying in the 1980s when it brought kegs to games and then infamously was caught inebriated outside the MAC and forced by the College to disband.

But now, with its image cleaned up after years of self-imposed community service and a ban on alcohol at team events, the rugby team is looking for success on the field—and finding it.

The team has become a haven for ex-varsity athletes and, with an intense practice schedule, it has steadily improved in the regional rankings since the end of its suspension four years ago.

“Our goal is to return to the Final Four,” said co-captain Stefan Atkinson.

Taking It To The Field

In its push to build a championship team, Atkinson and Kersey’s team can draw on a long and storied tradition for inspiration.

The Harvard Rugby Club, established in 1872, is the oldest in the country and was a perennial presence on the national scene in the 1980s. In 1984, the club won the national title, and in 1990 it appeared in the USA Rugby Final Four.

A glass case with the rugby championship trophies from the eighties and early ninetes at the front of the MAC always serves as a reminder of the team’s glory days, according to senior president Jim Marett.

The team struggled in the late 1990s to recover from its temporary banishment. At first, as Atkinson recalls, “we were awful.”

In the fall of 1999, the team struggled to a 2-8 record. The next year, a dramatic come-from-behind victory over rival Northeastern in the Beanpot final sparked the team to a 5-5 record. Last fall, improvement again was steady and the team finished 8-2 and won its division.

This spring, the team will play tournaments such as the Beanpot against Boston area schools and The Beast of the East against colleges from across the Northeast.

Despite a disappointing fourth place finish at the Ivy tournament last weekend, victories over Middlebury and Yale suggest that the team could contend even this year for its goal of repeating as Beanpot champions and possibly qualifying for nationals next spring.

The team has also been attracting some attention from fans. Marett says about 200 people turned out to watch the team’s match against U-Mass last fall.

Marett also remembers staging an intra-club scrimmage which caught the attention of fans watching a nearby Harvard baseball game. When the baseball game ended, the fans drifted to the next field to watch the rugby team play.

Rough and Ready

The ranks of the men’s rugby team, which director of club sports John Wentzell recently called “the crown jewel” of the club sports program at Harvard, have filled gradually over the year with ex-varsity athletes, mainly from the football, track and crew teams.

In addition to the high level of skill—Kersey estimates that one-third of the team’s starters are former varsity athletes—the team plays with an intensity that surpasses many varsity sports.

“One ex-football player said rugby practice is the hardest he’s worked since high school,” Marett says.

The rugby team has also gained a reputation for playing through pain. Sayle scored the winning try against Yale last year with a broken collarbone. Junior fullback Ryan Aylward played part of last season with a torn ACL.

“People play pretty hurt,” Atkinson says. “You just feel for the team.”

Since rugby is a club sport, the athletic department will not allow team members into the training room, a privilige only offered to varsity and junior varsity sports. Last year, senior outside center John Mazza sprained an ankle and could not be taken to the training room for intermediate care. He lay on the field for almost a half an hour waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

“Since you don’t get treated by the trainers, you learn fast to deal with your own problems,” Mazza says. “It’s not unusual that guys pop four or five Advil before games to numb themselves for a while. After that, we just basically play on adrenaline.”

But there is another side to the rugby team, which the co-captains are quick to emphasize lest potential recruits are scared away by the brutal nature of the sport.

Marett says the team welcomes anyone, and even has one player starting on the club’s second team who had never before played an organized sport.

“It’s automatically like a brotherhood the first time you come out,” Atkinson says.

The first thing that happens to new recruits when the enter the brotherhood” is receiving a new name.

Marett, a 220-pounder of Italian descent, is called “The Big Ragu” by his teammates. Kersey, known for his intense play on the field, has been nicknamed “Scrapper,” after a scene in Braveheart in which the character Edward the Longshanks proclaims “let the scrappers come to us.” The nicknames have become so embedded into the team, Marett says, that some people don’t know their teammates’ real names.

“One new guy asked me if my e-mail address was spelled ragoo@fas or ragu@fas,” Marett says.

But now, as the team has successfully jettisoned its image problem and sets its sights toward success on the field, all the fun and joking, Kersey says, could present a problem.

Kersey and Atkinson talk about maintaining a balance between “having fun with the guys” and serious work on the field.

“We’re really open to keeping the atmosphere at practice light but if we’ve got to crack down to make victories happen we’ll do that,” Kersey says.

And besides returning to the Final Four tournament, the team has other plans to make a little more comfortable what Kersey calls “a working man’s game.”

Marett says he hopes that one day the team will be able to build a small locker room by the field.

“It’s nice to be able to clean yourself up after practice and not have to walk into the dining halls reeking of dirt,” Marett says.