• 50 Years of Clemson Rugby

Spend five minutes talking to a Clemson rugby alumnus you’ll figure out why their sport has survived on campus for 50 years.
“There’s something about the sport of rugby. I can’t really put my finger on it. Once you get the bug, it kind of stays with you,” said Scott Bridges, who played for the team from 1985 through 1987.
It seems rugby has a way of slipping into the bloodstream. Players say it’s hard to pin down precisely what it is that makes the sport so addictive, but the camaraderie involved might just have something to do with it.
“Going into a rugby match, it’s a little bit of a battle,” Bridges said. “You practice hard against one another all week, and then you have that other team you play against on the weekend. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears that go into it. So you become close.”

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. [pullquote]“Let’s put it this way, the rugby people outnumbered my side of the family at my wedding,”[/pullquote] 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 residents—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 would compete in the national playoffs in Texas.

This momentum carried into the new millennium. The club continued to play on the national level. James Baxter and Jim Gaine founded the Clemson Rugby Foundation in 2007, signaling a new, more stable era in the club’s history. This organization hires certified coaches and athletic trainers, ensuring that the club can compete at a high level. Perhaps the Clemson Rugby Foundation’s greatest contribution has been its ability to connect a vast network of former players and supporters with the team’s current iteration.

“I think one of the reasons why the club has lasted so long is that it builds very strong bonds on the field and off the field,” Baxter said. “Its these incredible bonds that have kept alumni of the team in touch after graduation and that has led to strong alumni engagement with the club. We all want to know that there will always be a rugby team at Clemson.”