October 26, 2000

Men's Rugby: A Field Apart

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Asking the average Cornell sports team to come home with a winning record is sometimes a lot to ask. But imagine asking the players to organize, engineer, and execute the season, and winning seems all but impossible.

However, winning is just what the Cornell men’s rugby team has done. As the team wraps up its regular season and looks ahead to the post-season, this club team sports a 5-1-1 record, and stands a good chance of ending up tops in New York State.

Junior Sven Jensen is a third-year starter. He’s also the captain, coach, tutor, and general organizer of the team.

“I’m South African, so I’ve been playing my whole life. Our coach was a grad student, but he graduated after my freshman year, so I just took over coaching from there,” Jensen said. Playing alone is a 15-hour commitment a week, but Jensen must also schedule games, lead practices, and teach players the game itself.

That’s right, teach. If you want to be a part of a possible championship team, just show up and they’ll teach you everything you need to know.

“Most people come out never having seen rugby before; the good thing is everyone’s a great athlete to begin with, so it’s just a matter of teaching specific skills,” Sven noted.

Well, it still looks daunting to learn. The pace of the game is hockey-fast, and the lingo seems like a cross between military terminology and some language that identical twins speak to one another.

Rugby isn’t all that tough to learn, though. Just think football, without downs or forward passing. Or pads.

“When I went to the first day of practice freshman year,” senior James Miles said, “I got really freaked out and scared to play. I saw all these big meatheads on the field, and they welcomed me.”

Of course, the football team is fully funded; the men’s rugby team is only club level, which means the University only allots them $5,000 a year. Brown pays its football players more than that. But the rugby team’s stipend must cover everything, including travel, equipment and supplies, hotels, and fees.

“Yeah,” said Jay, who didn’t want to give me his last name, “we don’t even have a field anymore [the old Helen Newman field] because they’re building a dorm there. I’m really pissed about that.”

Even intramural teams are given priority at Jessup, so the rugby team is forced to practice at Bell Sherman Middle School north of campus. Any home game the team may play is at Cass Park. The goal posts are made of old two-by-fours and nails roughly hewn together; and at the end of each game, some unlucky rookie washes everyone’s uniforms.

But these guys have played through all this to be the second-ranked team in New York. With any luck this weekend at the Upstate Tournament, they’ll qualify for Northeasterns, and then maybe even Nationals.

In a fall of ups and downs for Cornell sports, that may be the best news yet.

Archived article by Tom McNulty