Band of Brothers

March 23, 2010 was one of those Vermont days the local weathermen like to call a “wintry mix.”

It was spring break at Middlebury, and with many students off searching for sun—or simply a break from Vermont—the campus was mostly empty.

But if you had gone over to the football stadium, you’d have discovered rugby players on the turf surrounded by snow drifts, stretching under the direction of head coach John Phillips. They were spending their break the same way they have for the last four years—preparing for the national tournament to be played in Florida in mid-April.

The Middlebury College Rugby Club had a title to defend, after all—the Panthers were the defending Division 2 national champion, having beaten Georgetown and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in last year’s tournament hosted by Stanford. Middlebury also won the title in 2007 beating Arkansas State.

There are no enrollment size requirements in collegiate rugby; schools choose their own division. Cal, BYU, the Ivies, and the military academies play D1. Most others opt for D2 or D3, with Middlebury the smallest school competing in its group.

Unlike most parts of the world, where rugby is played in a continuous season from fall through spring, the game in the States is divided into two halves. Teams qualify for nationals based on their record and seeding tournaments in the fall. They play for the hardware in the spring.

This quirk in the schedule makes it particularly challenging for Middlebury due to Feb graduation losses, including this fall’s two co-captains, MVP Ed Cahill and Chris Mutty. As a result, the spring team is young. The new captains are only second years, Brian Sirkia ’12 of Maple Bay, British Columbia, and Rowan Kelner ’12 from London.

Including the captains, the spring roster is dotted with international students— there’s Ross Berriman, ’12 from South Africa; Seb Damberg-Ott ’12 and Rowan Kelner’s twin, Nat, from England; and others from Australia, China, Indonesia, Ireland, Slovakia, South Korea, and Sweden.

Assistant Coach Much Zvoma ’07, a key player on that year’s championship team, is from Zimbabwe, and he points to the great mixture of international students, who grew up playing the game, and Americans, many of whom had never touched a rugby ball before arriving on campus. Panther football linebacker Andrew Durfee ’11 is typical. Looking for something to play in the spring, he came out for the team and is now on the squad’s first fifteen, or ‘A’ team.

“Middlebury is a global liberal arts college,” says Zvoma, “and rugby is the world contact sport.”

Behind the Olympics and soccer World Cup, but ahead of the Super Bowl, the rugby World Cup is the third most watched televised athletic event. Tradition has it that the game traces its origins to a student in 1823 at the Rugby School in England, where a plaque commemorating the event reads “William Webb Ellis, with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of rugby.”

The game, along with the British Empire, spread round the world. American colleges picked up the sport in the early 1900s, and later added shoulder pads and forward passing, which became American football. Rugby was still played out west, and in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, the original sport returned to eastern campuses. The Middlebury College Rugby Club was formed in 1972.

This year, nearly 60 students turned out to play for the men’s team; the College also fields a very successful women’s team which has gone through the last two league seasons undefeated and made the New England D3 championship game both years.

Since March, the Panthers have played games against a number of D1 opponents, opening with a convincing 27-0 win over Boston University, followed by two close losses, 20-16 at Yale, and 20-12 at Harvard.

And now it is April and the tournament is here. Twenty-six MCRC players have been selected, and boarded a plane from Albany bound for Orlando. Their spring break has finally arrived.

Update: The Panthers fell to Miami of Ohio, 27-23, in the D2 quarterfinals. Middlebury rallied the next day to knock off Cal Maritime, 40-27, in a consolation match.

Middlebury communications advisor Mike McKenna, along with Professor Miguel Fernandez ’85, serves as faculty advisor to the MCRC.

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