Willamette Rugby Club in Shadow of the Fall, Faces Uncertain Spring
Picture by Macy Loy
Willamette Rugby Club (WRC) players are stirring from winter hibernation, but remain shadowed by the uneasiness of their fall season. Following a handful of semi-serious to serious injuries, and confusion surrounding the school’s guidelines, fall rugby season was clouded by general discontent. While culprits and blame are difficult to pin down, the fact remains that the WRC demands an examination.
According to co-captain Nate Rutter (‘24), and club president Aiden Schubert (‘25), issues arose for rugby from the outset of the school year. A first year player put his head on the wrong side of a tackle during a reportedly low speed drill, concussing him and putting him out of action for the semester. Rutter explained, “Everyone going into this has to understand there are risks associated with rugby.” Truer words could not be spoken. According to Wayne State College Nebraska, rugby union players run into contact more than 20 times per game. Considering the experience level of most Willamette players, the risks may not be so clear to them.
Rutter himself only began playing the sport last year, and most players have even less experience. The violent nature of the game causes less experienced players to not only receive more injuries, but cause them. New players tend to tackle higher, create more haphazard tackles by being weak in contact, and move the ball poorly, leaving their teammates scrambling and vulnerable. Rutter explained that the club saw three notable in-game injuries during the fall season. Team captain Adam Remily (‘25) suffered a broken pinky, and in WRC’s game against Western Oregon, two WOU players received injuries including one involving a player’s neck, which required an ambulance. Such instances are not uncommon in the sport. In Willamette’s case, without film their cause cannot be perfectly identified. However, their occurrence contributes to a general mood surrounding Willamette men’s rugby. According to a representative from the Lewis and Clark and Reed College joint rugby club: “Their [WRC’s] tackling is too high, they are uncontrolled in the rucking area, and their lack of a coach made for an extremely unsafe tournament environment.” They continued: “Our coaches brought these issues to the league and while what the team was doing was technically legal, the league is going to be changing rules to provide a safer environment for rugby moving forward after the Willamette tournament.” Club president Schubert mentioned the issue in conversation. He explained that the club has had problems with high tackling in the past, and that they are now working hard to remedy through better training.
Men’s rugby’s shaky track record in the fall speaks not necessarily to any negligence or malice, but rather to a lack of resources. Speak with any rugby higher up and you will most certainly find a person who seems to work hard for the game and their teammates, and wants to have the best club they can. However, for the WRC, improvements can be made. Since rugby includes more violence than other sports, it requires more care. According to Rutter, rugby has had major problems with funding. Schubert explained that the club missed their funding window this fall, and had little recourse but to pay for supplies out of pocket, which they did. Rutter specifically noted a lack of quality equipment. Willamette Rugby Football Club (Willamette’s predominately non-male rugby club) president Mary Vickery (‘24) explained via messages that her club experiences similar problems navigating Willamette’s club funding system. She also described an instance which occurred last season in which a player suffered an ankle injury due to the poor quality of the quad. More so than money, however, rugby requires time and attention. Like most all Willamette students, rugby players have many commitments that outrank club sports. Rutter remarked, “That’s the Willamette way.” Each rugby club expresses a good attitude towards safety. Rutter specified, “I would rather people prioritizing their safety over prioritizing the game.” However, a higher prioritization of the game improves safety.
Neither club has a true coach. For comparison, the Lewis and Clark and Reed club has four, each certified by USA rugby. According to Schubert, he technically has a USA rugby coaching certification, but faced several computer crashes which impeded his learning process when obtaining the license. Furthermore, it’s unrealistic to expect Schubert to be able to take on the coaching duties of such a high impact sport alone, while also practicing himself. One player-coach cannot reasonably maintain perfect focus on both their own training and the training of brand new players. For the fall 15s (fifteen a side rugby) season, tackle training for first-time players was structured around a system older club members had learned in past years. Rutter, who helped lead the training admitted, “There wasn’t as much structure to it as I would have liked.”
USA rugby will host a coach’s training session in Chuckanut Bay, WA in February, where the clubs can certify more players as coaches. Club president Schubert stated that the club plans to certify one more player coach for the next season. However, on the WRC’s small budget, a trip to the Canadian border as well as the fee for the class may be out of reach. Alternatively, the Salem Rugby Football Club (SRFC) which participates in the Pacific Northwest Rugby Football Union, hosts open practices for adult men and women in NE Salem. Even better than an increase in player coaches would be a genuine coach, which admin loosely, and somewhat enigmatically prohibits. The Willamette Men’s Soccer Club has two “tactics advisors” serving functionally as coaches but not official coaches (granted they both attend Willamette and play soccer for the Men’s squad). Willamette may be able to find a coach within the SRFC’s four teams who would be willing to take on a role at the Willamette clubs. Again, such a move would likely require an increase in club funds, and a bending of school rules.
An experienced coach or a more experienced set of players could help guide the team to a higher quality rugby future, and keep an eye out for unsafe situations. Rugby is a beautiful expression of human capability, and it deserves a place in the Willamette community. Given its inherent violence, the game demands respect as a sport and artform. For Willamette, that respect could start in the form of funds for a trip north, and a stronger relationship with the SRFC.