Claremont Rugby Club Reaches D-II Nationals

On the 5Cs, club teams face an uphill battle to prominence. Without direct sanctioning from the athletics department, club sports must struggle for support—both to find adequate finances and participation. In the case of rugby, add in unconventional sports terminology like ruck, maul, lineout and scrum, and you have a team that must constantly fight for attention. When you make nationals, however, people start to take notice, ruck or no ruck.

Behind first-year coach Jeremy Ognall, a mainstay on the southern California and national scene, the men’s Claremont Rugby Club earned a berth at the Division-II nationals in Sanford, Florida on Apr. 16 as the second seed from the Western Region.

Last year, the team missed out on nationals by a single-point loss to Loyola Marymount. This year, however, they left no doubt about their abilities, executing a 43-5 drubbing of the very same school to finish with a record of 7-2-1.

The trip to nationals will be Claremont’s first since 2005, and will begin a new chapter of the program after the retirement of longtime coach Wally Cox.

The Claremont Rugby Club has quietly built one of the most successful club sports programs on campus behind its “grandfather,” Wally Cox. Cox coached the team for about 20 years and slowly built up financial support behind alumni networks and fundraisers. After retirement, Cox, a Claremont mainstay, returned to his full-time job in the village—dentistry.

Ognall took the job as head coach hoping to renew the program. The Claremont Rugby Club has always had a surprising amount of success (at least for a consortium of liberal arts schools)—including a 5-4 record in Division-I three years ago. However, the team found itself in need of an infusion of modernity.

According to Ognall, “Cox self-admittedly realized that the game had begun to leave him behind, and he asked me to come in for some guest sessions. After last season, the players interviewed me and asked if I would come in.”

The choice was an ambitious coach for an ambitious program. Last season, the team finished with a 7-1 record, but narrowly missed the playoffs. This year, the team didn’t merely want to finish with a strong record: they wanted to go to nationals and they wanted to win. Enter Ognall.

According to co-captain Jeff Astor CMC’11, “We [Astor and co-captain Daniel Hoesterey CM ‘11] interviewed Jeremy and took him in. We could have had another decently qualified coach, but we decided to spend the extra money and get somebody as good as we got.”

Indeed, you aren’t going to find many coaches in Southern California with similar achievements, if any.

Since he came to the United States in 1986, Ognall has stayed close to the sport. He played at San Diego State and helped them win nationals in just one year, 1987. After graduating, he stayed on as a coach. In the recent past, he coached a southern California collegiate all-star team to an all-star national championship.

In other words, going to nationals isn’t something new for this coach.

Ognall remarked that in the past, the program had hit a “plateau,” but that now “we are ready” for the national stage.

The squad has found success despite being a relatively unknown team playing a sport unfamiliar to the American tongue.

Terms like “ruck” or “maul” sound distinctly foreign to the hit, pass, dribble, tackle, and shoot vocabulary of American sports.

It isn’t hard to tell that rugby hasn’t exactly permeated the sporting culture of the United States. When is the last time you caught a game on ESPN? As one friend of mine put it, “When I think of Rugby, I think of angry-looking men crouched down very low.” Popular knowledge about the sport is not nearly as abundant as knowledge of distinctly American pastimes like baseball, football, or even basketball.

Rugby and soccer diverged during their standardization in mid-1800s English private schools. Soccer became a game of feet, slide-tackling, and forward passing, while rugby became a game of tackling, hands, and lateral attacks. Rugby entered the United States through the Ivy League schools, and ultimately informed the distinctly American game we know as football. Meanwhile, rugby retained its popularity, just not in the United States. Today, the standard bearers of the game hail from countries with a modern history entwined with Great Britain, such as New Zealand, Australia, Wales, Ireland, South Africa, and Scotland. (France, also a rugby stronghold, seems to be the exception to this rule.)

Without a base in the popular draw and common knowledge of other sports, the Claremont Rugby Club often must pick up beginners and mold them into rugby players in under a semester.

The difficulty the club has in drawing players is unfortunate, considering the obvious appeal of the sport. Other than the opportunity to take out aggression, the sport is the epitome of a “team sport.” Indeed, in one play, the rules require players of the same team to drape their arms around each other while pushing the other team away from the ball.

As taught by Ognall, the Claremont Rugby Club has adopted a highly team-oriented style of play.

Astor explains, “The offense is all about running angles and lines, so it is a crash offense when everybody is running and moving. It is quick and efficient and it scores. The style is high risk and high reward. You have to make difficult passes, but if you hit them you are going to score.”

Ognall elaborated, “Everybody has a role, even if that role is as a decoy. Everyone needs to execute throughout the play, so you can’t stop and think, ‘my job is done,’ whether it is your line or angle. The other thing that is key to our system is we want to move bodies around the field, we don’t want them to sit while others move the ball across the field.”

The largest problems the team faces are participation and funding. Thanks to generous alumni, the latter wound has been momentarily salved. The former, however, is an ongoing issue. Astor commented that he thought no more than five or six players joined the team with any rugby experience at all. As such, the learning curve for the team is steep and the beginning of the season is always a struggle.

This year was no different, as Claremont dropped their first two games to University of Southern California and Arizona State University. Since, the team went 7-0-1 to close the season.

To make nationals, the top team in the region (in this case, Arizona State) earns an automatic bid and the next four compete in a playoff for one position. Claremont defeated Irvine and LMU to make nationals. The team had finally come together.

Said senior back and four-year player Jamie Barraclough PO, “Finally we brought everything together at the end of the season. We have a bunch of new guys, and a lot of starters have been learning rugby on the fly. To make nationals, we stuck to the plan and played like we should play. We knew we were a better team, and we knew we could beat them. It was the first game we played all 80 minutes the way we should play and it showed.”

Astor added, “Most of our players are new football players, so their learning curve is exponential. So it happens that in every game they get in, they get to be better players.”

Now that they are gelling as a team under a new system, the revived squad will prepare for nationals with a little chip on their shoulders. They destroyed rival LMU 43-5, improving from a narrow 17-15 victory over them earlier in the year. If this learning curve is any indication, Claremont students should start paying attention to their rugby team, because the Claremont Rugby Club could be coming home with some hardware.

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