Senior Rudy Pett started playing rugby during fall 2009, when he studied abroad in Argentina. He joined the University of Richmond men's rugby club when he returned to school in the spring, already a second-semester junior.
"Some friends of mine at UR had been asking me for a few years if I wanted to give rugby a try, but I had never been too interested," he said. "But after getting into it in Argentina, it was something I wanted to do as soon as I got back to [Richmond] in the spring."
Pett's late start to the sport is typical of the rugby club - about 80 percent of the 42-man roster first picked up a rugby ball after they arrived at Richmond. Even with so many inexperienced players, the club has put together its best record in many years.
The club went 6-1-1 during the fall, the portion of the season when it played league games in the Virginia Rugby Union against schools such as the University of Mary Washington, Christopher Newport University, Hampden-Sydney College, Roanoke College and Longwood University.
The club's record positioned it second in the league behind Longwood, a huge improvement over last season when it failed to win a league game. This year's finish secured the club a bid to the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union qualifier on March 19 against Mount St. Mary's University.
"We're very competitive in Division III," said Carl Schmitt, who has been head coach for 10 years.
Schmitt's ambition, however, is to elevate the program back to Division II, where it would compete against schools such as James Madison University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Three years ago, the club played in the Division II league and made it all the way to the state championship game against Radford University.
Many of the club's players graduated that spring, leaving only 12 returning players in fall 2009, three short of the number of players required to fill a starting line-up. The club moved back to Division III in fall 2010 to rebuild. Schmitt said the club was much more organized now than it had been when he was contacted about the head coaching position.
"Back then, it was pretty much a drinking club with a rugby problem," he said. "The club hadn't had a coach for a while and it was pretty disorganized."
Since then, Schmitt said he and his staff had tightened things up. Officers have been put in place to collect dues, enforce rules and organize the socials. The socials, which are referred to in rugby as the "third half," are post-game gatherings where the competing clubs sing rugby songs and enjoy food and drinks.
Team dues, which cost players about $60 per semester, help the team fund the socials and purchase necessities such as fuel, equipment, water and other items. Like other Richmond-sponsored clubs, men's rugby also receives funding from the university. The club practices three times a week for two hours on the intramural fields, a time when Schmitt said the coaches were constantly teaching the game.
"I don't see a difference between practicing and teaching," he said. "They always go together. If we're teaching, we're practicing. If we're practicing, we're teaching."
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Freshman Sean Hickey is on the short list of players who joined the team with a sizable amount of rugby experience. He started playing for a travel team in his hometown of Montclair, N.J., during his sophomore year of high school.
Even though he was one of the youngest players, Hickey said his experience gave him an opportunity to teach his teammates the nuances of the game.
"It's a sport that you can pick up easily if you're athletic, though," he said.
Freshman Conner Boillat also played rugby before attending Richmond. Boillat was part of the state championship team for his high school in Rochester, N.Y., where rugby was a varsity sport.
Boillat played football before shoulder injuries led him to rugby. He said rugby was similar to football in the way it stressed individual talents, but different because rugby required players to be more cohesive as a unit.
"There are 15 players on the field with you," he said. "You have to do your one-fifteenth of the work, but you also have to operate as a unit."
Boillat said that when he joined the club, he was expected to start immediately, which he said was an honor as a freshman.
For many of the club members the sport is as much about the camaraderie as it is about the competition.
"Rugby to me has never always been about the sport itself, but about a greater feeling of brotherhood and respect amongst those who play it," senior Ralph Robinson said.
Senior Matt Briand said the camaraderie was one of the main reasons he joined the club during his freshman year.
"It's a really tight group of guys," he said. "When you're on the field laying your body out for other people, you realize that you'll do a lot for [your teammates]. Just the nature of this game."
The club plays Georgetown University at 1 p.m. on Feb. 26 on the IM fields, its last game before the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union qualifier.
Contact staff writer Zak Kozuchowski at firstname.lastname@example.org
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