The college rugby landscape in the United States has grown exponentially over the past few decades. Once relegated to fraternity circles and dark corners of college bars, rugby has grown on college campuses into a legitimate athletic powerhouse and recruiting tool.
While there are major universities that have produced incredible rugby programs, funded through donations from alumni and offering scholarships for student athletes, the sport is not restricted to the Ivy League as it once was. One organization in the United States is dedicated to growing the game of rugby for those colleges without a storied history or massive endowments from millionaire donors.
The National Small Colleges Rugby Organization is a separate entity from USA Rugby, but receives full support from the sport’s national governing body in the United States. Eligibility for teams to join NSCRO include a full time enrollment less than 4500 men or 3500 women. This accounts for nearly 40% of all college rugby programs in the United States and the number of NSCRO-eligible teams grows every day. As of 2016, there are more than 230 men’s teams and 100 women’s teams registered with NSCRO.
NSCRO fields two men’s XVs divisions, one women’s XVs division and men’s and women’s 7s championships. The development of NSCRO has relied heavily on the continued sponsorship by Penn Mutual, the title sponsor for the organization who lends immeasurable support to the five national championships each year.
The commitment to these competitions from NSCRO and Penn Mutual has led to more than 10,000 players annually competing under the NSCRO banner. “In addition to the rugby program, the partnership has provided access for small college rugby clubs to Penn Mutual job opportunities and financial education,” said NSCRO President Steve Cohen.
While NSCRO evolved from what was considered USA Rugby Division III, it is not a lower level of competition or skill. Members of NSCRO-level clubs have gone on to play on select teams including regional all-star teams and Collegiate All American squads, and have represented the United States at several different age grades and levels. It is clear from the continued success of NSCRO athletes, that small college rugby does not necessarily equal small skills.
Schools with only a few thousand students had found themselves at a disadvantage when competing against schools with ten or even twenty times that number. Allowing them to compete against schools of equal size has created a better, more competitive environment and allows for teams to compete for a real national championship within a realistic framework.
The trajectory of NSCRO is certainly looking up. The organization has enjoyed 12% annual growth over the past decade and, with the added exposure of rugby in the Rio Olympics, the sport should continue to grow. The support of USA Rugby is a positive partnership as well, consolidating conferences and competitions to provide structure to a vast and varied rugby presence at the college level. “We have established a good working relationship with the new USAR CEO Dan Payne and look to expand our work together for the common goal of improving the collegiate rugby experience,” added Cohen.
While the vast majority of colleges do not offer rugby scholarships, there is a push for more structured efforts from schools to support the growing sport. The growth of the game at smaller schools is helped by NSCRO’s goal of “providing a well-run, responsive national organization that serves the needs of small colleges,” said Cohen. “We get hundreds of letters of appreciation from parents, players, coaches and school administrators thanking NSCRO for what we do.”
As pathways to legitimacy continue to expand into PRO Rugby, an established Club 7s system, and other ventures across the country and the world, NSCRO athletes will continue to receive opportunities to play at the next level. And with more than a decade’s experience in leading and promoting the growth of the game through their various competitions, NSCRO is sure to remain a major player in the rugby landscape in the US for years to come.