After Enduring a Tough Season, UT Rugby Looks Toward a Brighter Future

It’s 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and instead of relaxing or studying, members of the UT rugby team are training at the Wright Whitaker Sports Complex, 20 blocks north of campus. It’s a buzz of activity—stretching, chatting, and roughhousing—before assistant coach Richie Barnes barks out orders and initiates the first drill. Everyone finds a partner, grabs hold of each other’s wrists, and attempts to hit one another in the face. Barnes is my partner. He’s better at this than I am. But it’s just a warm-up, aimed at getting a player’s upper body loose and their mind tight. Within 90 minutes, half of the squad will be coughing up lungs, trying to make UT rugby one of the best programs in the United States.

Your correspondent is 35 years old and played college rugby in England. After a few more drills, I’m ready for a break, perhaps even a beer. But alas, no. It’s time for a tackle drill. Someone is thrown a ball and they run at me full tilt. I throw myself at his legs, make contact, and down he goes. He springs up and returns to the back of the line. I take a moment … followed by a time out. I’ve just remembered a fundamental law of rugby club: Don’t tackle people with your face.

The first rule of rugby club is to tell your friends about rugby club. “Everyone who comes and plays truly falls in love with it,” Corin Wakefield tells me at practice. He’s the first team’s fly-half—or what most us might think of as quarterback. “We’re a club, that’s where the bond is. If you’re new to town, we’ll bring you in.”

Wakefield is a well of enthusiasm for rugby, as are 8-man (think tight end) Ross McDoniel and club captain William Wang, who plays hooker—a cross between snapper and offensive linesman. The three are senior members of this 45-member club, which was founded in 1985 by Nigel James, BS ’86, and Kirk Tate, BA ’83, and they share a desire to take UT Rugby to the next level.

“It’s a skill sport,” Wang says. “It’s not about how large you are. It combines elements of football, basketball, soccer, even tennis. There’s a position for every shape and size.” Tall and sturdy, McDoniel nods before explaining that he fell in love with rugby after failing to make his high school basketball team. Like Wang and Wakefield, he played through high school on the Central Texas circuit.

Physical like football, but free-flowing like soccer, rugby dates from the 1820s. The modern game—especially strong in Britain, France, South Africa, and Oceania—shares in the same 19th century roots as American football. The scoring system and fields of play are similar, as is the basic concept of getting an oval ball into the opposition’s end-zone. But in rugby, not only does the ball remain live at all times, it can only be passed backward, meaning that most moves resemble rushing plays. To cut a long story short, this makes the aftermath of every tackle resemble a fumble.

UT plays in the Red River Collegiate Conference, one of seven that make up America’s premier university competition. Regular opponents include TCU, Baylor, OU, LSU, and Texas A&M. After the regular season, the top 12 teams duke it out in playoffs. But UT has a way to go before mounting a serious challenge. “We went 2-6 for the season, but we could’ve gone 4-4,” Barnes says. “We’ve been competitive, but we’re not good finishers right now.”

Despite last season’s difficulties, the team is buzzing with camaraderie and energy. And practice is one of the most diverse places you’ll find on campus—foreign students who’ve played the game all their lives, plucky novices, and grizzled vets from the Texas high school circuit. With new coaching in place and an added training day, expectations for the coming season are high.

The team’s new head coach, Zac Mizell, was hired in the summer to establish what he calls “the beginning blocks of a high-performance culture.” One day, the team might act as a pipeline, feeding graduating talent into the nascent pro league in which the Austin Huns are set to compete. Until then, the focus is winning the Red River Conference, making the playoffs and competing for the national crown. Mizell, a nationally-capped professional, was drawn to UT Rugby by the players’ attitudes despite a rough season.

“What I saw was a bunch of young men who were extremely intelligent, coachable, and eager to learn, something I haven’t always seen in college rugby,” Mizell says. His first order of business is creating a varsity squad with multiple coaches per positional set that will train with a junior varsity setup open to new prospects.  “This is the last true team game left,” Mizell says. “It’s the only sport where no matter how good one player is, they can never take over the game.”

Coming together for success is at the heart of what these students are doing. “We’re a young team committed to winning, committed to training like a varsity program,” says Wang. But it’s more than winning. There are no superstars, only teammates. And there’s a fraternal aspect to putting one’s body on the line week in, week out. One gets the feeling that these brawny young men are forming friendships that will outlast their rugby careers—for Mizell, that counts too. “I want these guys to interact with the community and their school as a rugby player,” he says. “That’s where we are going to start.”

As for me, I plan to leave them to it. The deductible at my chiropractor is too high. But I may journey up I-35 to watch them take on Baylor and TCU in the fall under Friday night lights. Those games both take place the day before their respective fixtures on the college football calendar. I have a feeling both Longhorn Rugby and Longhorn Football will prevail. After all, there’s more than one way to skin bears and frogs.

Photos by Norma Salinas 



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