Talent and success can be found on Rice’s rugby field

Talent and success can be found on Rice’s rugby field

Special to the Rice News

What Rice team
earned a top 10 finish last season, falling in the postseason
only to a pair of final four contenders? If you answered
baseball or women’s basketball or one of the other
newly resurgent Owl teams, go to the back of the class;
the answer is the Rice men’s rugby club.

Last spring,
the Owls advanced to the USA Rugby Collegiate Sweet 16 for
the first time. Led by the play of scrumhalf Steve Vaughan,
prop Phil Alexander, flyhalf Nick Carling and loose forward
Judd Smith (a former all-Western Athletic Conference football
standout), the Owls trounced Princeton 37-8 for Rice’s
first win in the national playoffs. Along the way, Rice
lost only to Wyoming and Army, who finished second and third
in the competition.

This result
marked the continuation of a decade of success for the Rice
rugby club, which has been a perennial competitor in the
postseason with multiple Texas and Western U.S. championships
during that period. Despite its record of excellence, however,
the team regularly faces funding shortfalls when success
leads to postseason travel.

Last season’s
trip to the Sweet 16 at West Point, N.Y., initially was
financed on assistant coach John Connolly’s credit
card and eventually was covered by emergency grants from
Rice rugby alumni and from the university. The club now
is reaching out to alumni from the ’80s and beyond
to place rugby at Rice on a financial footing on par with
its athletic success.

The rugby scene
at Rice has changed dramatically since the mid-’80s.
At that time, the club operated without coaching and with
so many graduate students and nonstudents that the Owls
were ineligible for collegiate competition. Despite fielding
talented teams—Mike Glass ’87 and Brannan Smoot
’89, for example, went on to play for the U.S. national
team—and taking home some state-level club titles,
the team lacked continuity and appeal as a pursuit for undergraduates.

Changes began
with the recruitment of regular coaching in 1988. Phil Meyer ’89 convinced Duncan Rossiter, a New Zealander then
coaching a local club, to make the trek to Main Street twice
per week to work out a team composed of undergraduates recruited
by Meyer and his classmates. Improvement was immediate,
and the team won its first Texas collegiate championship
in 1989 under Welshman Steve Zeal. The rugby team got its
first taste of postseason play—and the associated financial
costs—falling to eventual national champions Air Force
in regional action in Lawrence, Kan.

Over the next
few years, the team continued its success and became a popular
choice with undergraduate men looking for an opportunity
to compete at a high level in a demanding sport. The Owls
have learned that keys to success are proper equipment,
dedicated coaching and the ability to travel outside Texas
to compete with national powers. Thanks to alumni partnerships,
they are increasingly able to fulfill those needs.

For the last
few seasons, the Owls have been sponsored by Stewart Title
Co., whose president and chief executive officer, Stewart
Morris Jr. ’71, was a member of the original rugby
team at Rice in the late ’60s. This sponsorship has
provided new uniforms and safety equipment for the field
at Rice, among other benefits.

In 1996, rugger
alumni formed the Rice Rugby Alumni Association to provide
support to the undergraduate club. The association’s
primary focus to date has been to establish an endowed fund
for rugby at Rice, which was achieved in 1999. The endowment,
initially established with more than $25,000 donated by
alumni from the ’90s and late ’80s, eventually
will produce enough income to provide significant support
for operations and development of the sport at Rice.

The goal of the
alumni is to become competitive with national powers like
the University of California at Berkeley, winners of the
national title in 17 of the last 21 seasons. Fueled by a
deep endowment and strong alumni support, the UC–Berkeley
Bears are one of the few rugby teams accorded varsity status
by its athletic department.

A milestone
in alumni involvement with rugby at Rice was reached last
spring when Robert “Chip” Matthews ’70 agreed
to make a significant designated gift to the club over a
number of years, with half of each year’s contribution
going to current operations and half to the endowment.

The Owls have
been coached in recent seasons by Ed Brown, a stalwart of
the Houston rugby scene. Brown has provided continuity and
is a U.S.-born role model for his charges. With the additional
support of alumni, the club will continue to receive excellent
coaching and will be able to undertake travel to compete
at a national level without going into the red each season.

“For all
the wonderful experiences at Rice,” said Sean Park
’90, “I am sure I speak for most Rice rugby alumni
when I say that playing rugby was one of the most valuable
experiences I had at Rice and perhaps in my life.”

The alumni have
shown a commitment to sharing this experience with the next
generation of Rice rugby athletes. “Although it is
unlikely that Rice—or any school—will seriously
challenge UC–Berkeley in the immediate future, there
is no reason to think that it cannot be done in the medium
term,” Park said. “And in the meantime, Rice will
continue to graduate 15 to 20 men each year with unacknowledged—but
very real—degrees in leadership, teamwork and courage.”

— Keith
Couch is a 1989 Rice alumnus.

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