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Rice Rugby’s intellectual brutality results in dominance

Senior scrum half Ethan Kao throws the rugby ball during practice Tuesday afternoon. Kao, the team captain, has helped his team to a top-five ranking in the nation. Cali Liu / Thresher

By Landry Wood     11/28/23 11:44pm

Rugby is a particularly underrepresented sport in the United States. Only four Division 1 universities field varsity rugby teams, and the sport’s organization for American professional play, Major League Rugby, had its inaugural season just five years ago. It is not surprising, then, that many students at Rice are unaware that the university’s club rugby team is one of the best in the nation. 

According to junior lock Hubert King, the sport has managed to attract a corps of students who missed playing another contact sport under the Friday night lights.

“Rugby has the physicality of football that I missed after high school,” King said. “I think that’s why a lot of people play.”

The outfit competes in the Lone Star Conference at the highest level of American College Rugby, D1-AA. They are currently ranked fifth nationally and undefeated midway through the season, having overcome in-state foes such as the University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas A&M University.

“It was an issue in years past where we would just go screw around,” King said. “We only practice two times a week, so leading up to games the way we were preparing just didn’t really help us that much. It’s definitely been more serious this year because we like getting better … it’s been more fun, actually, to take it more seriously. We started winning more and thought, ‘this is nice.’”

According to King and Eli Ginsburg, the club president and a senior lock, this committed practice in refining the craft of rugby is the most essential contributor to the team’s winning, especially when considering the comfortable play and camaraderie that such focused training fosters in the club’s players.

“A lot of teams in Texas have big dudes who probably played football before,” King said. “So there’s a lot of emphasis on just being physical and running straight through people. Obviously, we’re not as big as other teams … so we have to make up for that. The way we do that is skills, by being good at kicking, timing and structure. Stuff that goes beyond the physical.”

“I think this is the first year I’ve been here where the majority, if not all, of the starting players have had a year of experience playing,” Ginsburg said. “They know how their teammates play, which is probably the biggest part in influencing a rugby team.”

According to Ginsburg, one way the club facilitates this learned style of play is by sending two players to Mount Maunganui, New Zealand each summer to practice, attend camps and bring back their experience for the whole team’s benefit. Ginsburg himself took the trip in 2022.

“It’s just a great experience to meet people who are all as interested in rugby as you are,” Ginsburg said. “I personally came back seeing the sport in a whole new way. Then I was able to apply that to the field and, hopefully, I’ve offloaded some of that information to some of the other guys.”

Another means through which Rice Rugby trains its players in the art of the sport is by hiring coaches with histories of professional play.

“[The team’s success] starts at having world-class coaches,” Ginsburg said. “The three years I’ve been here we’ve had professional players from South Africa who want to play for the U.S. National Team, and so they really want not only to teach us the basics, which is necessary, but also get us to that higher level of being able to see the entire field and … utilize our skills.”

Not every club sports team at Rice has the funds available to hire professionals to coach or to send players abroad for over a month to study the game. Rice Rugby has the benefit of close relationships with alumni, many of whom return for a yearly alumni game and networking event in the fall. According to Ginsburg, these lasting ties are vital to the club’s ability to sustain its success and benefit its members.

“We have an extremely strong alumni presence,” Ginsburg said. “[Meeting the alumni] is an amazing opportunity, and them being so connected and wanting to help the players is what helps build this funding. If you reach out to them with a question about job connections or anything like that, they will try their absolute hardest to get you in the position that you want to be in, which is incredible.”

Following the winter break, the team’s season will resume on Jan. 20 with a game against the University of Texas at Austin on Rice campus, Intramural Field 4.

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