Just like the century-old stories about the humble beginnings of college sports, USF has a squad of amateur athletes who take to the field year-round, for nothing more than a love of the game. Working on a shoestring budget, the passionate core of players teaches rugby to newcomers, and everyone seems to be having about as much fun as kids on Christmas.
Recruiting takes place over the summer and in the fall pretty much anywhere on campus where students congregate. The team members ask any female student they see if she would like to play rugby for USF. Only a few will express interest, but a few is all they need. "At Bull Market we get stares," says team president and all-around forward Jessie Premet. "They're like, ‘oh I'm not athletic,' or ‘I'm not tough enough.' I guess that's true sometimes, but people just don't give it a chance. And then they fall in love with it."
USF is in the south region of Women's Division II College Rugby, and they play in the Florida Rugby Union, along with Miami, Eckerd College, Florida International, Florida Atlantic, and Florida Gulf Coast. They normally also play scrimmages against Division I FSU and UCF for the noncompetitive fall season. In the friendly fall and competitive spring, the game is rugby union, the 15-player version that most resembles American football. In the summer they play rugby sevens, the version that will be in next year's Summer Olympics.
USF ended up with a 4-1 spring record this year, which would have been outstanding had three of their wins not come from forfeits. In the first game of the year, Florida Gulf Coast did not have enough players ready to come up from Ft. Myers, so they had to cancel. The game went into the books as a 20-0 USF win. In week two, the Bulls destroyed FAU 75-0. USF was ready to make the short drive to St. Petersburg for the next game, but Eckerd College was on spring break and had several players that traveled to Atlanta to play for the Florida Rugby Union Women's High Performance Team, so they forfeited and gave USF another 20-0 win. Miami did not have enough players to make it to Tampa for USF's next game, so they forfeited as well. Although the Bulls had several inactive players they were eager to play an actual game for the first time in a month, so they piled into their cars and drove to FIU for the last game of the regular season. The Panthers won 64-7.
Undaunted, USF took their soft 4-1 record and won an at-large bid to the Division II College Tournament, which consists of 16 total teams and included FIU. This is normal for USF; they have gone to the tournament each of the last three years but have lost in the first round each time. This year's first round opponent was South Carolina, who was ranked 20th in Division II going into the tournament. USF, whose coaches and players put a premium on endurance, controlled the ball for most of the game and ground out a 32-22 win. It marked a huge upset and the first time in school history that the team moved into the elite eight.
The Bulls watched the next game to find out who their next opponent would be. As FIU piled on the tries against Alabama, they soon realized they had a rematch on their hands. At full strength and with the confidence of their first round win, they kicked off at 11:00 the next morning and played a much better game than their last time out against the Panthers. Still, USF ended up losing 27-0. FIU will compete this weekend in the Division II semifinals. "I'm just really proud of how the girls did this weekend," says head coach Lis Gallant, adding that the second loss to FIU "wasn't as brutal."
The nostalgic old-fashioned sports fan in me takes comfort in the fact that USF has a team of women playing a 150-year-old version of football just because they like it. They play by the same rules as men's rugby, complete with full contact tackling, locked-arm scrums, and lifting receivers for line outs. Women have been playing rugby for about as long as men have, but only in the last few decades has it become an organized sport on college campuses in America. Women's rugby has none of the trappings of a big time college sport. No one is getting paid, no one is making money, and no one seems upset about that.
The rugby community is a closely knit group of friends, on and off the field. When talking to a rugby player, you sense the joy they get out of it. "One of my absolute favorite things about rugby is that it teaches you life lessons," says senior wing Yzel Borja. "And it's just really fun."
"It's just so much fun," agrees Jessie Premet, also a senior, "and you feel pride, too. When you charge down the field with the 15 players and you make that try, you're like, ‘that felt awesome. We pushed and pushed and did it together as a team.'"
Playing rugby supplies you with a large group of drinking partners, study partners, and just close friends in general. This is true for any sport, but the game of rugby itself, where players depend on each other for physical safety, can't help but create camaraderie. "Because it's such a hard sport, you're really relying on the people around you to protect you in things like rucks and scrums . . . the kind of bonding that it promotes because everybody has to be looking out for everybody is something that I never experienced in another sport," says Coach Gallant.
The future of American rugby seems to be bright. More and more college (and even high school) programs are appearing, and the level of competition improves every season. Still, it is not easy to convince 20 people to commit to forming a rugby union squad. This is why many schools and club teams play sevens. According to Gallant, "Rugby sevens in the United States is really starting to take off. You need less people, it's more of a fit player's athletic game so you can take a lot of crossover athletes who might not have the rugby knowledge and put them out there and still have quite a bit of success."
It is especially difficult to find women who want to play. Thinking back over her seven years of rugby experience, Jessie Premet describes the stigma surrounding women's rugby. "I would say that everyone thinks like, everyone is gay and that only manly women play the sport, but it's gotten better for sure. Before that's what people would think, like, ‘oh don't join women's rugby; you're going to be gay and huge.'" There is also the problem of lack of familiarity with the game. "Most of them have no idea what rugby is until they come and play," she says.
"I'd say like 99% of our girls were athletes in high school," says Borja, but many of them were looking for a new sport to play or did not make it as walk-on in other USF sports. Rugby's need for differently sized and differently skilled players makes it easy for those women to find a place on the team.
"Rugby in America has always been kind of like a hooligan's club sport and I think with professionalizing it you're going to increase the level of the game but you might lose some of the social aspects of it that I really enjoy," Gallant points out.
The sport is definitely having growing pains. Some schools have NCAA status while some are simply campus clubs. Colleges move up and down between Division I, II, and III, and conferences dissolve and are reincarnated. And of course there is the problem of all of those forfeits. "I'm kind of glad we're not Division I because UCF, FSU and UF are in the SIRC, which is a different conference than us because there's not enough teams in Florida. They have to travel to Tennessee and Georgia to play their teams, so I'm glad we don't have to do that," says Premet. "But I see us definitely moving up to D1 in the future." Eventually, she would like to see USF's team move up to full varsity NCAA status.
In the NCAA, rugby
players' student athletes' amateur status would be maintained by large volumes of rules and regulations. Paperwork and technicalities would abound. But they would also get more money for travel and equipment, scheduled gym time, and even better players. For the most part that would benefit the community, the school and the players themselves. But for now, amidst all of the big money in sports, college rugby is a breath of fresh air. The players play it because they like it, and for them that is enough.