Orphaned Rugby Club Wins On The Main Line Without Villanova

Posted: December 24, 1997

It's been more than two years since Villanova decided to drop its rugby club, but the team plays on. Donations from rugby alumni pay most of the bills. Practices are held on a field in Upper Merion. Home games are in Conshohocken or in Fairmount Park.

This team is made up of students, but the college isn't part of its name. It's just the Villanova Rugby Club.

``Luckily, all our jerseys only said Villanova, they didn't say Villanova University,'' said Rick Clairmont, president of the team's alumni organization and the team's de facto general manager.

The club was so successful this fall that Villanova qualified for the national championships in May in Albany, N.Y. But there's a catch: They can't play unless they're recognized by the university. And that isn't likely. ``No, not at this point,'' said Villanova athletic director Tim Hofferth.

Rugby club officials say they're not asking for money or even a field. They're only looking for the university to acknowledge they exist.

It doesn't matter that Villanova is the top-ranked Division II college team in the nation by the USA Rugby Football Union. ``Wins and losses was not a variable when it came to this sport,'' Hofferth said.

Don't automatically cast Villanova as the ogre here. It's more complicated than that. Hofferth said the school can't simply recognize a club sport without overseeing it.

``Obviously, it's different than badminton. When get you get into more full-contact sports, you have to play closer attention,'' Hofferth said. ``You have to make sure the coaches are certified. You're talking about a trainer, emergency medical technicians, field usage, when you practice, how you integrate a freshman into a full-contact situation, having a structured program. When catastrophic situations occur, you've got to be able to document control and show these things have been done properly.''

These days, rugby is a hot-button issue in many college athletic circles, for many of the reasons Hofferth listed. Administrators are concerned about how much control they have over this sport, and about possible liability repercussions. The sport was dropped several years ago at another Pennsylvania college after a student was paralyzed by a rugby injury.

``Our attorneys advised us, unless the sport could be managed the way you manage a football team, in regards to a trainer, and screening athletes - unless we could do that, we would just be in a very vulnerable position in terms of our liability,'' said Don Nichtor, who is in charge of club sports at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., which dropped rugby and settled a lawsuit with the injured athlete, who is now a quadriplegic. ``Basically, the attorneys were saying this is a lot more like football than the squash club or Tae-Kwon-Do club. It's a matter of interpretation for the courts.''

At Villanova, ``there was some litigation involved,'' Hofferth said, between the school and a current student who suffered a neck injury playing rugby. But Hofferth said dropping the sport ``wasn't simply a liability issue. There were a number of variables. It involved limited resources.''

Hofferth said that, in 1995, rugby was moved from a club sport and reclassified as a recreational sport, which meant a number of students on campus have ``an affinity interest in the activity. It could be skydiving or it could be berry-picking. But there isn't an outlet on the campus for that activity.''

Clairmont suggested that Villanova wasn't properly administering the rugby program before it was dropped, and ``instead of getting 100 percent involved in the situation, they won't get involved at all.''

Clairmont said the university was unaware that the injured athlete's family medical insurance had lapsed, so Villanova ended up having to pay the medical bills. Now that's he's in charge of the team's insurance, Clairmont said he requires that every player's family provide him with proof of insurance and fill out an affidavit stating that in the event the insurance changes, Clairmont will be notified immediately.

Serious injuries are ``extremely rare'' at the college level, said Lyle J. Micheli, a Harvard Medical School professor and director of sports medicine at Children's Hospital of Boston. Spinal injuries can practically be eliminated, Micheli said, with good coaching and refereeing.

``Most neck injuries are from collapsing of the scrum, which is an illegal tactic. Twenty-five years ago, some referees didn't even know that,'' said Micheli, who played college rugby at Harvard.

He doesn't argue that schools should be paying attention to the sport. He just thinks that's easily achievable. Injury rates in rugby are probably comparable to those in lacrosse, he said.

``It's a great game,'' Micheli said. ``It's the second most-popular participant sport in the world, behind soccer.''

It has long had a small but fervent following at Villanova. There are more than 400 Villanova rugby alumni in his organization, Clairmont said, and ``probably better than a hundred'' contribute financially to pay for an insurance policy that has $1 million in property coverage and $1 million in non-participant coverage. The alumni also pay for field costs, additional travel expenses and uniforms, Clairmont said. ``Basically the only thing we don't pay for is their party stuff. If they're going to host a team, they're responsible for paying for a dinner.''

That brings up another reason the rugby club was given for the program being dropped: ``Rugby culture.'' Whether deserved or not, the sport has a reputation for kegs being as integral as scrums. Clairmont said they've worked to change that. Alcohol is banned at all games. Also, ``no alcohol before or after practice.''

In addition, the club has called for team members to participate in community service projects such as Habitat for Humanity, the Special Olympics and tutoring students in Philadelphia.

They want to be looked at as ``do-gooders, like the Key Club,'' Clairmont said. ``We've made it. We wanted to be a model for all students at Villanova.''

Brian Marchetti, a sophomore, said he helped paint a house in the city one day and participated in a party a campus group gave for a woman and her child from a homeless shelter. As for the ``rugby culture,'' Marchetti said he knows a lot of Villanova athletes, and drinking isn't confined to any one team.

Clairmont, a 1989 graduate who is now a certified public accountant, said he doesn't want to give up (``my whole Villanova existence was rugby''), but the clock is ticking. The team has been told it has until next month to come up with sanctioning or it can't play in the national championships.

``I understand the university's point of view. But there's a solution to everything,'' Clairmont said. ``If the university comes back and says, `No way,' there's a chance the team just might fold. It's been a two-year battle for me. I don't want to hurt the university.''

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