MORAGA, Calif. – College rugby is becoming increasingly professionalized with the growing number of varsity programs, and other schools capable of supporting a paid coaching staff and rugby-related scholarships.
Saint Mary’s College, a small private university with just over 4,000 students, is about to play for its third consecutive D1A Rugby National Championship without the benefits of a paid coaching staff or scholarships. The Gaels are indeed in the top-one percentile in terms of competitiveness on the pitch, but still wade in the pool of club rugby along with the vast majority of college teams.
“Something I really appreciate about Saint Mary’s is that it is still a true club sport,” said Gaels lock Henry Hall. “We have all walks of life come and sign up for the team, and a large percentage of which initially sign up have no previous rugby experience.”
Hall doesn’t fit into the group of Saint Mary’s players with no previous background in the sport. His father has over 30 years of playing experience, so it’s not too surprising the 6-foot-3-inch lock picked up the game at the age of thirteen.
After two years crafting his game at St. George’s in British Columbia during high school and a year at Auckland University in New Zealand, Hall was never recruited by Saint Mary’s, but decided to follow the footsteps of fellow Tacoma-native and Eagle prop Nick Wallace to Saint Mary’s. He was extremely attracted to the college’s School of Liberal Arts and said the rugby program “sold itself”. What Hall didn’t know is that he would be training with dozens of students who were picking up a rugby ball for the first time.
“There are no cuts,” Hall explained. “[Head coach] Tim [O’Brien] makes it clear at the beginning of the year what the standards are, and it just comes down to the individual’s commitment to endure the tough times.”
The Gaels typically begin training in September with anywhere from 80 to 90 students attending practices and conditions sessions. Now at the tail end of their season, less than 40 players are actively participating in team activities.
“Our demanding fitness regimen in the fall weeds out a lot of the uncommitted players, but seemingly every year a few of those players who have never played before rise to the top of the heap, prove themselves and become excellent rugby players,” said Hall.
One of those newcomers to the sport that has thrived thanks to the tutelage of O’Brien and forwards coach Johnny Everett is prop Dino Waldren. Following a successful football career for perennial national power De La Salle High School, Waldren continued to play football at Laney College in Oakland. Desperate to compete at the highest level, Waldren was devastated when his acceptance to Division I’s Colorado State University to play football was delayed. The discouraging news opened the door for a sport played with a slightly different shaped ball.
De La Salle alum Jordan Bouey, who was an All-American for the Gaels at the time, called his high school friend to tell him about Saint Mary’s College and his new favorite sport – rugby.
“I immediately fell in love with it,” exclaimed Waldren. “Football is very specialized. In rugby, you have to be great at everything.”
Now a two-time All-American, Waldren can still recall the first rugby match he ever saw – a game he played in against San Francisco State in 2012.
“I was holding onto the goalpost throwing up, and people were yelling at me to keep running,” the senior remembered.
Waldren won’t be the only Gael taking the pitch against Life May 7 for the D1A National Championship. Nick Schlobohm led Saint Mary’s in tries in 2014, and is likely to start at fullback come Saturday even though he never stepped foot on a rugby pitch before arriving to Moraga from Anaheim, Calif.
O’Brien and Everett most definitely deserve loads of credit for the school’s rise from rugby obscurity to National Champions. Still, it’s the student-athletes that have taken it upon themselves to treat their club sport like a varsity program.
“This is an everyday commitment,” described Waldren. “We meet six days a week as a team, and the one day we don’t we’re lifting.”
So, what’s the payoff for the club sport athletes that are often too busy conditioning in the fall to implement rugby skills, only to play possibly the most physically demanding spring schedule of any team in the country?
“It’s the difference between the blue and the red ribbon – the silver and the gold,” explained Waldren. “When you put in the amount of blood, sweat and tears like we do, we know we’ll have deserved that National Championship trophy.”
The D1A Rugby National Championship Final will be one of five matches at the May 7 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships hosted by Saint Mary’s. Life beat the Gaels in the 2013 D1A Final, but it’s been all Saint Mary’s since then, winning the past two National Championships over the Running Eagles.
The fourth consecutive D1A Final pitting No. 1-ranked Life versus No. 2 Saint Mary’s will kickoff 3p.m. PT and air free of charge on The Rugby Channel.