The rugby community in the United States, though small, is strikingly tightknit. This past April more than 300 of Clemson’s rugby alumnus and fans joined to watch the Tigers take on Dartmouth, as well as celebrate 50 years of Clemson rugby. Scrums on mucky pitches in the dim glow of early Saturday morning have a way of binding people together. Andras Bende, who played for Clemson rugby from 1994 through 1998, has experienced that bond. “Let’s put it this way, the rugby people outnumbered my side of the family at my wedding,” said Bende.
Such close bonds are a crucial part of the long, rich history of Clemson rugby. Organized rugby at the school dates to 1967, when four students—Nick Schoular, Geoff Tyers, Jeremy Pike and Frank N. Mora III—founded the Clemson University Rugby Football Club. These students came from disparate locations around the globe. Schoular and Tyers hailed from the United Kingdom. Pike came from Australia and Mora came from Puerto Rico. Students from a variety of backgrounds joined the founders in the following years, and the club began to grow by word of mouth.
“One of the team members came down … Johnstone Hall tossing a rugby ball, which I had never seen before,” said Jim McMillan, who played from 1969 through 1973. “He invited me out to see the sport and my life was changed forever.”
Even with organic growth, Clemson Rugby was not exempt from growing pains. Good uniforms were difficult to acquire, as was a proper coach. In the trimmer years, junior and senior players served as coaches. A women’s team popped up for a brief period in the 1970s, but it folded after only a few years in existence. Sustaining a successful rugby program was a challenge. “There were lean, difficult years when coaching and field concerns made it hard to field or organize a team,” said Michael Fitzgerald, who played from 2005 through 2008. Though Fitzgerald is a more recent team member, he appreciates the contributions of the predecessors who kept the club afloat.
The culture of the club in those years stands in contrast to the club that exists today. For the first 20 years of Clemson rugby’s existence, it straddled the line between a social club and a serious team. That began to change in the 1990s, when the club started to contend in national competitions. Clemson performed admirably on a fall tour in 1996, defeating a Harvard team that had made it to the Elite Eight in the previous year. In 1998, the team could compete in the national playoffs in Texas.