4

21 January 2009

UM Rugby continues an era of excellence

DONNYBROOK: Rugby players battle for possession of the ball.  UM's rugby squad was a top team in decades past.  COURTESY FRANCHESCO MANGERI.

DONNYBROOK: Rugby players battle for possession of the ball. UM's rugby squad was a top team in decades past. COURTESY FRANCHESCO MANGERI.

Prop. Hook. Maul. This is not some grossly violent Ultimate Fighting Championship match, these are the sounds of the “scrum” during a men’s club rugby practice on the intramural fields. They may sound foreign to the average spectator, but they are critical to the game which these students have come to love – even though the university has not always possessed the same feelings.

“In the eyes of the university, we, as a club sport, take second priority to intramurals and other activities,” team captain Ryan Baebler said.

Even though the sport remains the second most popular in the world after soccer, it has never truly gained a following in mainstream America. Still, rugby maintains a presence on college campuses nationwide. The University of Miami men’s rugby team ruled the 1970s and ’80s when they fielded alumni, professionals and international players alike, touring all over the world.

“We played against sides from all over the world,” said Frank Williams, the team’s coach since 1989 and a former player for UM. “We were, in those early years, one of the top three clubs in the country.”

These days, Williams attributes the drop in the club’s stature to less funding and quality athletes.

“We had elite athletes who came from all over the world to play rugby here at UM,” Williams said. “We had more funds to play more games and tournaments.”

Despite the many obstacles Williams and other clubs face, he points to the sport’s growing popularity stateside, especially at the grade school level, as a barometer for the future.

As vice president of Operations of the Florida Rugby Union, the official rugby governing body in Florida, Williams was part of the delegation that presented their case to incorporate flag rugby into the physical education curriculum as part of the state program known as “Battle Against Obesity” to Gov. Charlie Christ early last year. The plan was approved by over 90 schools from the Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, with plans to begin this month.

“Flag Rugby coming to the K-12 level is a major breakthrough for not just the sport in Florida but nationally,” Williams said. “It sets a precedent for other states to follow.”

As part of the initiative, University of Miami rugby players will serve as ambassadors of the game, teaching children the fundamentals of the sport while hoping to raise awareness.

“Kids now will be able to learn the game from a young age, which will raise the sport to heights never before seen,” Williams said.

For these UM players, recognition is often hard to come by, even on their own campus. Often forced to practice on the Mahoney-Pearson fields, the club is not always allotted its fair share of respect. Nevertheless, the team remains a cohesive bunch, continuing the rugby tradition of camaraderie.

“Camaraderie is not a tradition so much as a necessity,” Baebler said. “In order to have a good team, you must have good chemistry on and off the field.”

After last season’s success, in which the team placed fourth at the state championships in Tampa, they are eager to once again return to prominence. With six members selected to the United States South team last year, Williams returns one of his strongest rosters in years and expectations within the team are high.

For Baebler and his teammates, the opportunity to play the sport at the collegiate level remains one of their most cherished experiences.

“I came to UM without knowing a soul, but I knew rugby,” Baebler recalled. “These guys became my family.”

As notoriety continues to increase for the club, prospects for the future remain bright. One thing, though, is certain: Coach Williams will be out there in the scrum as just another one of the guys.

4 thoughts on “UM Rugby continues an era of excellence

  1. I was a member of those vaunted 80s teams. Played with Franklin, the Hickey brothers, all the South Americans, Bernard the super fast winger from Carribean, etc.

    It appears the state of the program is in complete shambles.

    What the hell? Jesus H. Christ.

    I eventually finished up my rugby career with the Santa Monica Dolphins here in Southern California. SMRFU is now in the Rugby Super League.

    Bring back some pride at UM Rugby, damn it!

    This is like the UM football team. Wallowing in mediocrity.

  2. Frank is the worst thing to happen to rugby in the state of Florida. Learning rugby at UM I thought he knew what he was talking about, but began to suspect otherwise. A few practices in playing for a men’s side with a real coach I realized I knew less playing for Frank for 4 years than when I started.

    The club needs to do the right thing and tell him to leave forever and find a real coach. There are several quality individuals out there, and anyone who has played rugby for 5 minutes would be better than Frank.

  3. Come learn to play; 5-7pm Tuesday/Thursday (regular practice) or 6:30-7:30PM Monday/Wednesday (conditioning practice). Wear cleats; soccer are fine. You can come late or leave early if you have class during those times. All levels of experience and physical fitness are welcome. You will learn and gain physical fitness over time.

Comments are closed.