Rugby may not routinely make headlines here in the U.S., but this burgeoning sport boasts a perennial power at Penn State.
This past weekend, the PSU Lady Ruggers pummelled Chico State in the USA quarterfinals, advancing to the Final Four for the 14th time in the last 15 years. They lead the nation with four national titles since 1995.
The Penn State rugby teams are student-run squads, funded largely through their Alumni Association. In recent years, Rugby has been elevated from club status to a “team” sport, earning administrative support and a small amount of funding from the Penn State athletic department.
In the national sports arena, however, the women’s squad cannot get any higher. The Lady Ruggers are undefeated with one tie through their fall/spring schedule, and stand on the brink of back-to-back national championships. They’ll travel to Stanford in two weeks to battle Brown in a semifinal match, with the winner facing either Stanford or Navy.
Life on a non-varsity Penn State sport is not easy. There are no scholarships, and the teams raise money for their program by cleaning Beaver Stadium after football games. That may make their success even more impressive.
Speaking from his L.S. Fiore office in Altoona, Joe Pullara, a Penn State rugby graduate and assistant coach for the women’s team, said, “They choose to put in that commitment, and it’s more fulfilling and rewarding. It’s tough to repeat and they have met the challenge so far with hard work, commitment and sacrifice.”
If you’ve ever been to a rugby match, you have witnessed the work involved. The extremely physical sport looks like a cross between soccer and American football, though Pullara says rugby is derived from soccer, while American football has rugby roots.
Penn State head coach Peter Steinberg, a native of England, describes it as the consummate team sport.
“It’s player-centered,” he said. “When the game goes on, the players take responsibility completely. It’s a very complex sport, with difficult tactical decisions throughout, made by the players. There are no timeouts. The sport builds independence and leadership while 15 people find out what they can do.”
He says it’s a wonderful confidence-building sport, especially for women. We can thrive on the rugby pitch no matter what our size or shape: There’s a position to suit everyone’s strengths.
Pullara says he, like many American rugby players, took up the sport to continue competitive athletics beyond the scholastic level. Rugby is growing stateside with some Pennsylvania high schools (including State College) adding the sport to their club offerings.
Meanwhile, rugby has been alive and well at Penn State since 1962. This summer, the teams will dedicate the Kabala Family-Penn State Rugby Hall. The facility will celebrate the people, history and achievements of the country’s most successful collegiate rugby programs of all-time: the men and women of Penn State.
That may very well include a 2008 Lady Ruggers’ national championship.
Kellie Goodman can be reached at email@example.com. Her column runs on Tuesdays.