“Rugby is for everybody:” How Stanford’s club team thrives

March 23, 2023, 8:08 p.m.

“I think I broke my nose,” a player calls out as she walks into the locker room before a Monday night practice.

“Again?” a teammate replies with a laugh. 

The room erupts in easy chatter, asking if she’s still coming to practice (yes, she is) and whether she’s going to get it checked out (yes, she will). As the rest of today’s crew trickles in, the cozy room warms. Pulling mud-caked cleats out of backpacks, the team gradually files out to warm up.

The club

The women belong to Stanford Rugby, a club sport around 80 players strong between the men’s and women’s teams. Despite the sport’s relative obscurity in the U.S., Stanford’s rugby program has long been home to a tight-knit, competitive group of athletes.

Stanford plays Rugby Union, the style of play favored by the U.S., wherein two teams of seven or 15 players kick, carry and pass an oblong ball across the field. Unlike its cousin, American football, the ball can only be passed backward, and play doesn’t stop when the ball-carrier is tackled, leading to a physical, fast-paced game. 

The club operates on a combination of an endowment fund, alumni donations, fundraising and student dues. A $1 million donation by alum Hal Steuber  ’62 AB MBA ’64 in 2003 built Steuber Rugby Field, a 130-by-70-meter grass expanse on East Campus. The donation made Stanford one of few American universities with a designated year-round rugby field; yet, in a sport that rosters 23 athletes each game, it’s still up to the team to fill it. 

Rugby peoplethey’re very persuasive

Unable to recruit prospective students like a varsity sport, the club embarks on a rigorous recruitment campaign each fall.

Sophomore Vanessa Onuoha ’25 has been on the team since her freshman year, when she saw the club tabling at the activities fair. Her mom played rugby in college, so she decided to check it out.

“I’ll come to one practice just so I can tell my mom that I went,” Ohuoha said. “And I was like, ‘Wait, that was kind of fun. I kind of like that. Maybe I should go to another practice.’ And then another practice turned into the whole season, buying cleats and joining the team.”

Madison Quig ’23 also joined after seeing the club tabling her freshman year. “Rugby people — they’re very persuasive,” said Quig. “You’re like, ‘Well, I’ll just try it out,’ you know? And then you get hooked.”

Each visitor is encouraged to attend two practices before deciding whether rugby is for them. To those unaccustomed to the fast-paced, complex sport, a first practice can be daunting. But the team is used to spotting potential.

“We try to do a good job of retaining people who come to practice and who we are like, ‘I feel like we can see this for you,’ and be like, ‘You’re gonna enjoy it, like, you’re a little scared, but you’re gonna like this,’” said Onuoha.

The team is also accustomed to taking on new players from different athletic backgrounds.

“Especially on the seven-a-side game, where there’s a little bit more space and time, if you come from that, like, track, soccer, basketball background, you can really excel quickly,” said head coach Richard Ashfield. In addition to leading both the men’s and women’s team, Ashfield coaches for the USA Rugby Women’s National Team in the summer.

Rugby is for everybody

Similar to American football, there’s a wide spectrum of skill sets and body types needed on a rugby team.

“We need those six-foot, big people, and then we need small, fast people,”  Ashfield said. “We want all shapes and sizes, and the more different experiences that can be brought on and off the field, the more valuable we are as a team.”

Onuoha grew up taking dance, and says that the “culture around body image” in rugby is “completely different.”

“I think rugby has been really good for my self-image and my relationship with my body in that way,” said Onuoha.

The team is also host to an “international diaspora,” said Tom Adamo ’25.

“Every single person I know who plays on the rugby team either joined as a freshman or is an international student who grew up with it,” said Adamo, who hails from England. “It was nice for me to find that little niche of international students playing a sport that’s not big in the U.S.”

The coaching staff also brings “different perspectives” from around the world, said Moe Khalil ’23. Ashfield is from Northern Ireland, and former head coach Josh Sutcliffe has played for Australia and The Philippines.

A history of excellence

Even though many of their players began the sport in college, the teams are competitive among their peers, which include varsity programs. The women’s team won the PAC-12 Rugby Sevens Championship in November, and beat Cal on March 17 to close out an undefeated regular season.

According to Ashfield, the women will continue playing Fifteens this Spring, with their eye on the national championship, while the men will switch back to the Sevens game, where the smaller, fast team has “a shot of going to nationals” as well.

Olympic Greatness

The Stanford program has a “long history of excellence,” said Ashfield.  Stanford Rugby alumni dominated the rosters of the gold-medal-winning 1920 and 1924 Olympic teams, before the sport was pulled from the Games.

When rugby was reintroduced at the 2016 Olympics, this time with the seven-a-side game, Stanford Women’s Rugby alumna Victoria “Vix” Folayan ’06 was a member of the U.S. team.

Big Game Blip

In the early 1900’s, Big Game was replaced by a rugby match after a string of fatal injuries in college football. In 1919, favor returned to football, and the sport stepped back in as the official Big Game.

Astronomical wins

Men’s Rugby remained a varsity sport until the 70’s, when the program was converted to a club sport. In 1977, the women’s team emerged alongside it.

Among this very first women’s rugby team in 1976 was Sally Ride ’73, MS ’75, PhD ’78, the first American woman in space. In fact, as many players will excitedly tell you, the team has produced two astronauts: Ride and Jessica Watkins ’10, who returned from a 170-day mission at the International Space Station in October of 2022.

Yes, it is a contact sport

While the occasional concussion, sprain, break and tear is par for the course for any athlete, rugby players will be quick to tell you the relative safety of rugby compared to football.

“Much less people are getting tackled per play,” said Sephora Rupert, a first-year Ph.D. candidate. In rugby, only the athlete carrying the ball can be tackled.

“Yes, it is a contact sport,” Ashfield said. “We’re very careful.”

The team keeps an athletic trainer on-site for games and contact practices, and players follow strict recovery guidelines.

More than a sport

Even if they can’t compete on the field, injured students have a home at Stanford Rugby. A $1 million donation by John Doyle ’56 MS ’59 in 2003 built the John Doyle Rugby Clubhouse, a two-story building hovering above the field and its modest, concrete stands. The clubhouse has the lived-in feel of a popular student hangout, with a couch, a TV and decades of trophies lining the walls.

“This is a space that we want them to use and feel like they can come when they need to get away from the main campus,” Ashfield said. “There’s always an open-door policy.”

Despite the distance from main campus, the clubhouse is regularly host to studying, socializing and the occasional team sleepover.

The culture

Contrary to what some might expect, Stanford’s program is happy to be a club team.

“We’ve created a lot of great rugby players, and most of them, you’ll hear coaches say, started playing rugby at Stanford,” Quig said. “That is something that I don’t think would happen if it was a varsity sport.”

The team dedicates practice time to teaching the basics of the sport to newcomers, while a welcoming atmosphere and a flexible, three-practice-per-week schedule allows a diverse group to stick around.

“We don’t have that expectation that you must be at everything all the time. It’s just not realistic at Stanford; we know that,” Ashfield said. “We have some players that can only come once a week, and we’re like, ‘That’s fine.’”

“Here, it’s like, we’re full people and everyone acknowledges that,” said Elly McKay ’25, who joined club rugby after leaving the varsity rowing team. While the financial resources of varsity are a nice perk, she thinks that the club sport’s flexibility strengthens the team’s attitude.

“Everyone is always making a conscious effort to buy into the team every day that they come, because there’s always an option not to,” McKay said.

Practice is full of smiles, encouragement and playful teasing among teammates. Over a two-hour practice, students are led through a handful of exercises, including a warmup of sharks and minnows, sprints and a few offensive and defensive drills.

Today, the men and women practice together, separating only once to run different drills. Ashfield refers to Stanford Rugby as “one club with two teams,” and their practices often overlap.

“The men learn from the women, the women learn from the men,” Oliver Sibal ’24 said. At the recent women’s game against Cal, the men’s team transformed into a lively cheering section, storming the field to perform an impromptu game of touch.

“There is always a lot of laughter,” said Tom Pulliam J.D. ’69, who regularly attends practices to give tips to the players. Pulliam, who played on the team during his time at Stanford Law School, attributes the team’s consistent good attitude to the coaching staff, who keep the sport fun.

What keeps him coming back after more than fifty years? “The game and the people. It’s simple.”

Cameron Duran '24 is a vol. 265 Arts & Life Managing Editor. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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