Rugby has never enjoyed much popularity in the U.S.—especially in Texas, the land of Friday Night Lights and Longhorn football culture.
Those are big wins for rugby on the national and international stage—and the sport is on rise in Texas, too.
Yes, UT has a rugby team, and a really good one, too. This marks their 26th year on campus, and it may just be their biggest yet.
Texas Rugby is currently riding high at an undefeated first place in the Southwest Rugby Conference (the season goes from fall to spring). Only three more matches lie between them and a trip to the national championships in April.
Last summer, the team placed fifth out of 16 teams in another national competition: the invitation-only College Rugby Championships, which was televised nationally on NBC. UT will play in the same championships again this June.
For a club team staffed by volunteers and funded by players, scholarships will be a vital recruitment tool, says assistant coach and fundraising chair Mickey Johnson.
“We’ve raised about $8,000 toward an initial goal of $25,000,” Johnson says. “We have players who are international and out-of-state students. This will help them put school first.”
“The guys are really passionate, really positive, and are working really hard,” says head coach Butch Neuenschwander. “My team captain last year graduated with a 4.0, and he was pre-med. So these are smart guys. I’m damn proud of them.”
Neuenschwander says rugby’s reputation as a bloody, brutal game belies its true culture—one he calls chivalrous and fun-loving.
“Rugby is intense and full-contact, yes, but not dangerous,” Neuenschwander says. “And you’ll never see yelling or a brawl break out at a rugby match. The players even call the referee ‘sir.'”
Mickey Johnson, an assistant coach with the team, calls rugby “human chess” because, he says, the game requires so much mental acumen.
“In football, you have one play and then that’s it,” Johnson says. “The strategy involved in rugby is more intellectual. You have one play, and then another, and then another, and you have to plan all of those strategically.”
The team plays two very different versions of rugby: 15s and sevens. The more traditional 15s is played with 15 men on each team, and the match lasts for 80 minutes with no time-outs and one five-minute halftime. Sevens has seven men on each side, and the game only lasts 14 minutes: two seven-minute segments with a five-minute break.
“Sevens is fast-paced, perfect for TV,” Neuenschwander says. “Rugby has everything. It’s fun to watch and fun to play. Our team is going places.”
Photos courtesy Mickey Johnson