When you think of prestigious athletic programs at USC, you don’t often think of rugby.
Only a few people know that the rugby team rivals football in terms of longevity. Founded in 1887, rugby was even a varsity sport before football took over.
Nowadays, rugby is a club sport that plays in the Southern California Gold Coast Conference, and is comprised of 64 players who are dedicated to an underappreciated — if not forgotten –— sport on campus.
Jonathan So, a senior and president of the team, is mindful of the history of rugby at USC.
“The USC rugby tradition has been carried on all these years,” So said. “It feels really rewarding to be part of something that’s so old and has been around for so long.”
At first glance, rugby seems like a disorganized, chaotic sport, with the ball continuously moving, bodies flying all over the place and scrums developing on every play.
But beneath the surface, it is a sport that requires extreme versatility and demands respect between opponents. Unlike football, rugby players stay on the field for both offense and defense, increasing responsibility. And the continuous action is more tiring on the body and more harmonious to watch than football, where play is stopped seemingly every few seconds.
“There’s a huge focus on teamwork,” So said. “I know that sounds vague, but there’s honestly a spot on the field for everyone. The positions are so diverse, and it’s definitely a ‘gentleman’s sport.’”
That’s the underlying theme of rugby, which they say is a “hooligan’s game played by gentlemen” (as opposed to soccer, a “gentleman’s game played by hooligans”). Players may be trying to tackle each other in the open field without much protection, but opponents have a tremendous amount of respect for each other.
Junior Corbin Bennett, the captain of the team, believes this is what sets rugby apart from other sports.
“Rugby has camaraderie to it, where it’s more of a brotherhood,” Bennett said. “There’s this respect to it that you can’t describe or find a quote for unless you actually experience it yourself. That’s something so beautiful about the game, and it’s overlooked among other sports.”
However, it is hard to learn to appreciate a sport if you can’t see it, which is the predicament that USC students face with rugby. The team is not allowed to play its home matches on campus, meaning it is relegated to borrowing local high school fields. This prevents them from drawing much of the student population who have been drawn in by a rugby match held on campus.
“We wish we could have a wider fan base, and that’s something we’re working toward,” So said. “But it’s something that’s also very difficult, because we don’t necessarily have the resources to draw that fan base.”
The team used to play at McAlister Field — also home to women’s soccer and women’s lacrosse — but was banned after they left the field conditions “damaged and unplayable” following a match, according to a statement from USC Athletics. They practice at Cromwell Field but are unable to hold matches because the field is not regulation size.
“The Athletic Department and Recreation Sports Department decided to eliminate rugby games on McAlister Field in order to protect the field’s condition and playability for its many other users,” the statement concluded.
For the team, though, this feels less like a need to protect field condition and more of an unfair restriction on the oldest club sport on campus.
“[The administration was] throwing [its] weight around,” So said. “It’s a little ridiculous, because the women’s rugby team is allowed to practice there, and every other club sport can use that field, but it’s specifically men’s rugby they’re complaining about. For that reason, we can’t have home games. When you can’t have games at home, it’s hard to bring a fan base out.”
So said that while they have an immediate network of fans that support them and membership on the team has doubled since he was a freshman, the administration is holding them back from taking bigger steps to increase the popularity of rugby around USC. They don’t have the money for a scrum machine, a common and necessary piece of equipment in the sport. Without a place to work out, they wake up at 6 a.m. to trek to Lyon Center to avoid crowds.
“Being the largest and oldest club sport in a private school, it’s a little ridiculous that Athletics is brushing us aside while all these programs [in other schools] grow around us,” So said.
But the dedication and commitment remains strong, and the camaraderie even more apparent. As practice wrapped up one Wednesday last month, the players locked arms in a circle while their coach gave a pep talk. Then, they launched into a chant -— the “USC Rugby War Cry” — a loud, bellowing series of yelps in perfect harmony.
“Here we are, ha, here we are, ha, SC, SC, ra ra ra, T-R-O-J-A-N-S, Trojans,” the chant ends.
“The bond that rugby brings is something that is so unique about the game,” Bennett said. “It doesn’t matter your height, weight or size; somebody is going to have your back even if you just met them. It’s unlike any other sport.”
It is a sport that is slowly growing on the world stage. The Rugby World Cup is the third largest sporting event in the world. Rugby sevens, a variation of rugby, will be an Olympic sport for the first time in 2016. The Professional Rugby Organization is launching North America’s first professional rugby league that will begin play in April of this year.
Yet, despite the progress around them, the rugby team at USC feels stuck in the mud.
“Our players are putting in the effort, but we really need the school to step up and provide us with more resources so that we can grow as the sport grows as well,” So said. “We don’t want to be left behind.”