Rugby Rolls Out at Ashland

Marissa Maxfield

The men’s rugby team is ready to rumble in its first game of the 2016 season at Ashland University tomorrow. The team, nicknamed the Gruffs, is stacked with young athletes drawn to the camaraderie and competition of club rugby.

Gruffs president and College junior Jimmy Fleming explains that a handful of the team’s core members are varsity athletes. Also, Fleming cited senior varsity cross-country runner Steve Meyer, sophomore varsity swimmer Jacques Forbes and junior former varsity football player Dylan Mehri as contributors to the team’s athleticism.

Leading the Gruffs are two experienced senior captains, forwards captain Joey Velez and junior backs captain Matthew Sarro.

Velez has played rugby for eight years, in addition to his background in football. He plays scrumhalf, a position that can roughly comparable to a quarterback, he works with the forwards during practice.

As a veteran of the game, Velez is the right person to help guide the Gruffs. “Because of his experience, he was the best choice to be forwards captain,” Fleming said of his co-captain.

Sarro, on the other hand, was a high school wrestler, but said his ability to tackle made his transition to rugby smooth.

Other than Velez and Sarro, most of the team consists of first-years and sophomores with limited rugby experience. The team graduated eight seniors and several key players last spring.

“We [have been] losing a lot of talent and bringing in a lot of new players,” Fleming said. “Last year, we had eight seniors who all had previous experience with the sport, and now we have eight solid new recruits who show up to every practice.”

Fleming and sophomore Sam Paul, who are both certified USA rugby coaches, have shown the rookies the ropes and placed particular emphasis on safety. Fleming pointed out the commonly held misconception that rugby is more dangerous than football and said that tackles are actually less aggressive in rugby than in football.

“It’s not like [a] football [tackle], which is like continuously getting in a car crash,” Fleming said. “In rugby, there’s no blocking and there is only backwards passing, and they also don’t train you to use your body as a weapon.”

The Gruffs compete in the National Small Colleges Rugby Organization and are one of 21 rugby teams in the Great Lakes Division, which includes teams from Ohio and Michigan. All of Oberlin’s games are in-state and organized through USA Rugby.

While the NSCRO’s other teams kicked off competition last weekend, the Gruffs received a bye in the first round of play, so they will begin their season on the second Saturday of competition in Ashland, Ohio. The squad has three home games scheduled for the fall, with the first set for Saturday, Oct. 1 against Ohio Wesleyan University.

As the season progresses, Fleming said the Gruffs hope to keep growing. They play “fifteens,” which refers to the number of players on the field, so the team needs at least 30 players to facilitate inter-squad scrimmages.

“Ideally, we want to reach those numbers, which we plan to do in a lot of positive ways,” Fleming said. “We’d like to reach out to the school more and to the campus community. We want to become a big enough presence on campus so more people know about the sport and to recruit prospective students.”

Despite a slight decline in numbers this year, Fleming said the Gruffs have come a long way from where they started.

“Back in 2010, they didn’t have uniforms, and no one was showing up to practice,” he said. “We’ve been steadily getting more money from the school and playing more games. We’re also playing more as a team.”

Fleming said friendly competition abounds not only within the team, but also among the other small-college rugby teams they face. NSCRO teams make a habit of socializing with each other after games. Gruffs alumnus Dustin French, OC ’16, said the intense but social nature of rugby lends itself to great team bonding.

“The rugby team is a great place to find friends and a community,” said French, who joined the team his sophomore year. “To anyone who feels lonely or wants to work out and challenge themselves, rugby is a great outlet. I hope the game and tradition continues at Oberlin for a long time.”