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.