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Rugby's Recruiting Success and Its 2018 Run to the NIRA Championship Game

United Front
Through strong chemistry and stellar recruiting, Harvard women's rugby stormed to the NIRA National Championship Game.
This season, the Harvard women’s rugby team has proven it deserves attention. The program has continuously been among the best in the NCAA, and its 2018 campaign showed no change. The program’s greatness only becomes more impressive when the difficulty in recruiting high school rugby players and walk-ons is considered.

Harvard’s recruitment of high school rugby players is a complex process. Primarily, since rugby is not exactly an established and common sport for kids to grow up playing, the sheer number of high school players is much smaller compared to other sports, such as soccer or basketball. In addition, the players must be strong academically to be accepted into Harvard.

“The recruiting process is really about finding the right people who are a good fit for Harvard and for our team culture,” Coach Mel Denham remarked. “Ultimately, we cast a large net in order to find the people who want to be at Harvard and who would be a great fit on and off the field.”

The coaching staff scouts all over the world to identify top talent. High schools in California, Utah, Colorado, and some midwest states are regularly scouted, in addition to Canada. The coaching staff is also developing relationships with high schools around the world to find great rugby players.

“We have also started to work with some English players and are in the process of building relationships with coaches in England, New Zealand and Australia as well,” reported Coach Denham. “Our current team has players from Scotland, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, China, Germany and Honduras which is incredible to have such diversity in our culture.”

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The team also heavily relies on walk-ons to contribute to the team’s success.

“We try to be really welcoming to walk-ons because they are an integral part of our team,” said senior Akweley Okine. “Without them, we would not have enough people to play.”

This recruitment of walk-ons consists of multiple challenges for the coach and for the players, including the NCAA clearance process. The NCAA clearance process is time-consuming, complex and at times, discouraging. The team uniquely has a “recruitment chair” whose job is first to convince Harvard students to join rugby, and second to help with the logistics of the NCAA clearance process. Coach Denham suggests this position is incredibly helpful for the success of walk-ons in this process.

“We are very lucky to have incredible recruiting chairs on the team who have carved out a detailed timeline from start to finish for walk-on recruiting, which has helped make this clearance process very efficient,” said Coach Denham.

The tryout process for walk-ons differs from other varsity sports. Because the team needs walk-ons to field enough players, the coach looks for crossover athletes.

“Rugby is such an incredible opportunity for cross-over athletes, who weren’t exposed to the sport in high school, to compete and excel,” said Coach Dunham. “A lot of times skill will transfer from other sports they have played which is always fun to see.”

Since the team looks for these athletes, the focus is more on athletic ability and competitiveness as opposed to particular rugby skills. Furthermore, Coach Denham looks for players who will fit into the rugby team’s culture. The specific skills of rugby can be taught, but the ability to be competitive as well as a good teammate is most important.

“We bring on the athletes who we believe have the ability to develop in rugby, excel at the varsity level, and thrive within our team culture,” Coach Denham indicated. The rugby-specific trial process for crossover athletes allows the coach to “identify the athletes who are committed to the learning process and have shown athleticism and/or enough crossover skill to develop quickly.”

However, Coach Denham views the initial skill discrepancy for crossover athletes as the second biggest challenge in walk-on recruitment. Similar to the job of the recruitment chair, returning players are expected to play a role in reducing this challenge. Understandably, Coach Denham believes the early stages of becoming a rugby player for crossover athletes can be discouraging, so the advanced, experienced players are called on to offer support.

“Our experienced players also help tremendously,” said the Coach. “We often see them working with walk-ons pre- and post- practice to help get them up to speed. Injured players will also help by taking walk-ons aside during intense and advanced training sessions to work on fundamentals.”

For walk-on Erica Jarrell, the team’s commitment to helping her understand the game made her feel welcomed and appreciated.

“They were just super welcoming and everyone was down to teach me the game which was so nice,” she shared. “I really never felt isolated.”

The team creates a culture that is inviting and exciting, but as an intense, demanding, varsity contact sport, rugby is incredibly physically and mentally taxing.

Senior Caitlin Weigel explained the difficulty in finding women who have the “willingness to put their body on the line.” However, the physicality of rugby does not phase her. She works to convince potential walk-ons that joining rugby will only enhance their college experience and not limit the opportunities Harvard has to offer.

Perhaps the team’s extensive focus on creating an inviting atmosphere for recruits and walk-ons contributes to the team’s success. The emphasis on team chemistry was clear from the beginning of this fall season.

The team traveled to Canada during pre-season and the players were able to get to know one another off the field.

“I think it was really helpful in terms of solidifying better team potential,” said Okine. “Spending a lot of time together, starting to gel and understand each other better as players and people while we were in Canada was really incredible.”

The team also bonded through mindfulness practices early on in their season.

“I think we felt super united this season…we did a whole bunch of mindfulness work at the beginning of the season,” said Jarrell. “At the time we thought it was the most painful thing ever...but we employed all of the skills throughout the season and even throughout exams and the hardest academic stress time we maintained our team unity.”

Okine agreed with her teammate.

“I think a lot of people hit that stride in figuring out what they need to do to be the best teammates they can be, whether that is from the sidelines because they are injured or on the field hyping everyone up,” said Okine. “I feel that was at a level that we have not really been at in a long time.”

The bond between the players off the field clearly carried over into the rugby season as many players were expected to step up into new positions due to injuries and lack of personnel.

“We had walk-ons who were suddenly starters because someone got injured...and they were able to deliver some really key performances for us,” said senior Caitlin Weigel. “That ability to adapt to new positions and new expectations and grow in those positions really helped fuel us throughout this season, especially in the postseason where we really excelled.”

The team indeed excelled in the postseason. Its historic season culminated in the team’s first ever appearance in the NIRA National Championship in November. Though the game ended in a heartbreaking 14-19 loss to Dartmouth, they had beat the Big Green earlier in the season in the Ivy League Championship,12-3. This win was ultimate highlight of their season.

“I think obviously the best part of the season was beating Dartmouth in the Ivy League championship,” said Okine. “For the past four years, it has been something we’ve wanted to do and we’ve always come up short. I think all of that history and the really hard losses over the last four years culminated in that and it was just a very incredible moment.”

Both Okine and Weigel described the night before the big win in the Ivy League Championship as a very special memory. It was another symbol of the team’s strong chemistry and love for one another.

“We were all in the locker room just blasting music and we had a huge dance party,” said Weigel. “You could look around at everyone’s face and there was just such joy and love. That really defines what this team has meant to me.”

The joy and love was obvious to Okine as well. For her, it was a moment of unity and trust.

“I just remember looking around and being like, ‘this is incredible,’’’ said Okine. “We’re dancing around, we’re about to play this huge game, but we’re just enjoying being with each other and getting hyped for each other. I just remember thinking at that moment, ‘we are going to win, there is no way we are not going to win.’”

— Staff writer Lucy Connor can be reached at lucy.connor@thecrimson.com.

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