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After Ivy League Title, Harvard Women's Rugby Ready to Compete for NIRA Glory

Harvard women's rugby emerges from a scrum with the ball at home against Brown on September 30.
Harvard women's rugby emerges from a scrum with the ball at home against Brown on September 30. By Cory K. Gorczycki
By Lauren K. Choy, Contributing Writer

In the 79th minute of the 2023 Ivy League 15s Championship Rugby game, featuring rivals Harvard University and Dartmouth College, everything was on the line as first-year Neasa McLaughlin tied the game with a try. As time ran out, sophomore Skylar Jordan’s kick secured the game for the Crimson, with Harvard beating Dartmouth 19-17 thanks to her conversion.

This win gave the Crimson its third Ivy 15s championship. With a perfect record of 7-0, the team also achieved its first undefeated and untied 15s regular season in program history.

Harvard women’s rugby’s success has not appeared out of nowhere. Years of rebuilding have led to its current strength. Having won the national championship in 2019 — just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit — the Crimson graduated 14 seniors.

Coming back after the hiatus from the pandemic, there were many shoes to fill. The past few years have been about rebuilding team culture and rediscovering, as head coach Mel Denham explained, “who we are.” And the team has done just that.

As a young squad, the Crimson had much to prove. “Last year, we had a big first-year class that was very driven, energetic, and full of a competitive drive. They really gave us a lot of confidence and hunger,” Denham explained. It is clear that this competitive drive and hunger to win carried on this season.

At the beginning of the season, Coach Denham and the Crimson were preparing to rewrite the history books. “This team wants to build on a legacy and write their own chapter,” Denham pointed out.

In order to make their impact on the legacy of Harvard Rugby, this required an intense amount of commitment and reflection before the season even began. “Going into this year, there was a lot of commitment and motivation from the team to take things to another level this year,” Denham continued. “We spent a lot of time in preseason this year defining who we are, what’s important to us as a team, and what we value.”

Leading up to the big game against Dartmouth, the Crimson went in with the mindset that it was any other regular game. “I think there was a lot of excitement to play Dartmouth, but we didn’t talk about an Ivy title in the build-up week to that. We kept things really consistent,” the head coach reflected.

Harvard women's rugby turns the ball upfield at home against Brown on September 30.
Harvard women's rugby turns the ball upfield at home against Brown on September 30. By Cory K. Gorczycki

It adapted a similar mindset during the game as well. Harvard went in with the intention of simply playing its game, remaining calm and composed. “My big thing is really keeping things consistent and trying to manage pressure, because pressure can do a lot of crazy things and really affect performance,” Denham said.

The Crimson’s goals of remaining calm and consistent paid off, as it pulled away with the Ivy 15s Championship title. When Jordan scored the game-winning conversion, Coach Denham laughed, “I actually ran out to hug her just because I was so excited, and I actually slid, fell, and got trampled by the team.”

Jordan’s game-winning conversion was an unforgettable moment for everyone on Harvard Rugby — especially Jordan herself. “We knew we were going to bring Skye on to finish that game,” Denham said. “She was so well prepared for it because she’s made that kick 1000 times after practices.”

When talking about Jordan, Denham’s praise and respect for her drive to learn and improve is abundantly clear. “From day one, Skye has put in a tremendous amount of work and had an attitude that she wants to develop and improve,” Denham insisted.

Looking forward, the Crimson will next face off against No. 4 Sacred Heart University in the NIRA Division I Semifinals. In the past few weeks before the big game, the team has relaxed practices. “Maybe counterintuitive is that we’ve actually enjoyed some downtime and some fun practices away from usual week-to-week rugby training,” Denham said. “We sat down with the captains and said we’ve got to find that balance of switching off because you can’t overtrain for something that’s so far in the future but also being ready and having that readiness to switch back on.”

Since the Men’s Rugby World Cup took place the last few weeks, Harvard has even been enjoying the thrill of watching games and cheering on their teams. The week of the championship game, they even had a fun World Cup–themed week.

The Crimson’s preparation for big games such as the Ivy 15s championship and the upcoming NIRA Semifinal shows how it not only values being physically and technically prepared but also to be mentally and emotionally ready for competition. Building up strong team relationships, managing pressure, and resting seems to be key to Harvard’s success on the field.

“Every year is its own journey with the team, and that’s what makes coaching so fun,” Denham said. Harvard Rugby’s journey this season is not yet over.

Harvard is set to face Sacred Heart in the NIRA Division I Semifinals at 12:00 p.m. EST at home on Mignone Field. The game will be streamed on ESPN+.

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