Wabash is known for its love of all things sports. However, the team that’s making waves right now isn’t even recognized by the NCAA.
Rugby has been popular at Wabash for decades. It particularly gained support after the establishment of the Monon Keg game against DePauw, which is traditionally played during Bell Week. But despite recent successes against top programs such as Purdue, DePauw and small Division I teams, rugby is still a club. As such, it receives all of its funding from the Student Senate and alumni donations.
“Like other successful student organizations at Wabash, I expect the team will continue to thrive with effective student leadership and partnership with the Student Senate,” said Director of Athletics and Campus Wellness Matthew Tanney ’05.
The rugby team has been a student-led organization for its entire Wabash history. Players run practices, schedule their own film sessions and organize all logistics for scheduling tournaments. Rugby treasurer and co-captain Matthew Brooks ’24 believes that the student leadership is valuable, but also burdenouse at times.
“Being a part of a student-run sport is hard, but it’s super rewarding,” said Brooks. “The team’s successes and failures rely solely on us, and I know that Brayden [Goodnight ’23] and I, as captains, feel an additional burden on top of practice and school to manage all of the additional things we need to in order to make sure we are capable of going to tournaments.”
Despite little progress toward making rugby a varsity sport, alumni support is strong. Tim Craft ’00 first started playing rugby when he arrived at Wabash and immediately fell in love with the sport. After graduating, Craft became a referee and eventually rose through the ranks to earn the honor of refereeing the Division III National Championship Series and the National High School Championship. Craft continues to be an advocate for rugby at Wabash to this day and has argued for rugby to receive varsity status.
“I understand that our varsity program at Wabash is an NCAA program and rugby is not an NCAA sport,” said Craft. “The only way for rugby to become an NCAA men’s sport is for a school like ours to be a leader in the NCAA Emerging Sport program.”
Craft characterized previous attempts to begin the conversation about rugby gaining varsity status. Advocates of rugby, he said, received “very little attention from the leaders at the school that would need to become partners in making it happen.” He added that he expects “more of the same” going forward.
As well as rugby not having NCAA recognition, the College has also historically cited the lack of a rugby venue as a reason for not allowing the team to go varsity. In the past, the team could not use the football field, instead playing games on Mud Hollow. But today, rugby is allowed to use Little Giant Stadium for its tournaments, eradicating one barrier to varsity play.
“I think there have been efforts to increase the visibility of rugby, and to good effect,” said Professor of Spanish Dr. V. Daniel Rogers, who is the faculty advisor of the club. “The outstanding tournament that took place last weekend, with teams like Purdue and IUPUI participating, shows the high level of play we’ve achieved. Even DePauw has restarted club rugby and I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing our club retain possession of the Monon Keg. The fact that the College lets us use the stadium for the event is an indication of support for the club.”
But even without varsity status, Tanney believes that Wabash provides an excellent opportunity for rugby to thrive.
“It may be helpful to better define the term ‘varsity sport’ in this context,” said Tanney. “The term ‘varsity’ suggests more of a structural placement; namely, that rugby might reside within intercollegiate athletics. I‘d offer that Wabash already has a ‘varsity’ rugby team, both high functioning and competitive, just operating outside the NCAA framework and our intercollegiate athletics model. Regardless of those differences, we continue to work with the team to provide access to athletics spaces for practice and/or competition, including last weekend‘s event at Little Giant Stadium.“
While an official varsity designation would come with obvious benefits, both financially and in terms of play quality, there is also a recognition among team members that club status has its upsides.
“The benefit of being a club sport is that the guys that play and commit to the team are, for lack of better words, ‘about it,’” said Brooks. “They show up to practice and know that they as individuals are responsible for making themselves better. However, the cons are that we struggle to find funding at times, we can’t play 15s rugby, which is the traditional version, and we sometimes struggle to balance practice, running the team, academics and other extracurriculars. I feel like rugby is a job on top of being a player.”
There are other tangible benefits to being a club. Most notably, it gives the team much more freedom than their varsity counterparts.
“The pros of being a club sport are all about flexibility,” said Dr. Rogers. “We can organize as much or as little practice time as we need. It’s probably easier to make rugby fit into students’ busy academic and social schedules. And club rugby is as open to committed beginners as it is to guys with lots of experience.”
Even though club status has its pros, Brooks believes that, deep down, all players want to see the program become a varsity sport eventually.
“Earning varsity would allow Wabash rugby to take greater strides than it already has,” said Brooks. “We would get a coach to help take some of the burden of managing the team. We would get access to a more predictable source of funding. We would have access to the trainers and their facilities. We would be able to recruit more students to play so we could have a 15s team. We could travel to more tournaments and possibly compete at a higher division.”
In recent years, several other former club sports have gone varsity, including volleyball and lacrosse. But so long as rugby remains off the NCAA roster, the chances of a varsity rugby team in Crawfordsville seem slim. But varsity or not, the Little Giants will continue to promote their sport on campus and pave the way for the future.