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College Sports

Navy men’s and women’s rugby ready for inaugural seasons as varsity sports

There are only two colleges in the country playing Division I football that support more varsity sports than the Naval Academy.

In May, the gap between these institutions got smaller as Navy added men’s and women’s rugby as varsity sports, increasing its total to 35, one less than Stanford and Ohio State.

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According to Gavin Hickie, Director of Rugby and men’s team head coach , the history of the sport at the Naval Academy dates back to 1963.

“A British ship came into port and asked for a game of rugby and most of our guys didn’t know what that was but figured it out and played against them … and from there it’s just been an upwards trajectory of growing and expanding,” Hickie said.

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Navy men's rugby sophomore flanker Tanner Russell (6) makes the tackle during Saturday's match with The Citadel.

Fast forward a few decades and Hickie said both rugby programs were given a financial target to hit this past spring to be elevated from club sport status. Each achieved it several months before the deadline.

In a May news release, Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said rugby was always successful as a club sport and credited the on-field success of the program as well as the outstanding leadership of the coaching staff and the generosity of alumni, for elevating both men and women to what he called the “highest level of national competition.”

According to Hickie, there is enough funding in place to support both the men’s and women’s rugby teams for the next five years, which will allow him to focus on the two biggest challenges facing the Navy program.

“One of rugby’s major issues is figuring ourselves out on the domestic scene. It is very confusing and we have to do better as a collegiate sport,” Hickie said.

Navy women's rugby, shown competing in a game last season, has achieved varsity status. It's first match this season will be Saturday.

Hickie said some teams play for a championship in the fall and some in the spring. The Navy men’s team plays 11 games in the fall as part of the Rugby East league, which isn’t affiliated with the NCAA, and won’t compete for a championship until the end of the spring.

Meanwhile, the women’s team is an independent and plans to move to a conference that includes Army, Dartmouth and Harvard in the near future.

“Trying to explain this to anyone who wants to support the sport is embarrassing. How can we attract more people to the sport if we struggle to explain what our season looks like?” Hickie said.

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While Hickie is hopeful the NCAA will take a leadership role with regard to college rugby, he and Navy women’s head coach Murph McCarthy are concentrating on the other biggest challenge facing their programs: Beating Army.

“Army has been a varsity program for eight years, so they have a head start on us,” Hickie said.

McCarthy acknowledged the rivalry “has been very much in Army’s favor recently.” Last season, Navy’s women lost to the Black Knights, 20-3.

Due to the convoluted system of leagues and conferences, the men’s rugby team will play Army twice this season — once on Nov. 5 and once in the spring. Meanwhile, the Navy women’s team will face Army once in the spring.

Navy women's rugby has been elevated to a varsity sport this season.

Now that both Navy rugby teams are varsity programs, they will finally be able to recruit high school players with actual rugby experience which should help close the gap with Army.

“Right now, on the men’s side we have a roster of 62 and of that maybe 15 had played rugby before coming to Navy. Recruiting will change Navy — out of sight,” Hickie said.

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“I have about 14 girls who are banging on my door wanting to come play rugby at Navy, and I’m not even soliciting recruits yet,” McCarthy added.

The men’s team played its first varsity match last Saturday by thrashing an overmatched Citadel squad, 88-0. When asked what he attributed the blowout to, team captain Jack McMahon said it came down to the Mids being in better shape.

“I think conditioning played a big role. After we scored or if there was a break in play, they were usually walking while we were sprinting to the next play,” McMahon said.

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Navy women’s rugby which started as a club program in 1995, has already achieved national success. Last year, the Mids won the Rugby 15s Division I championship. They open this season Saturday against Lander at the Prusmack Rugby Center located at Greenbury Point.

At the end of the day, Hickie says his most important mission is helping to create outstanding military officers and he believes rugby is the perfect sport to meet that goal.

“Rugby is chaos. We want to thrive in that…and be leaders in that chaos. That’s what we are all about. That’s how we are going to make better officers in the Marine Corps and in the Navy.”


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