College rugby, more specifically rugby union, is played throughout universities in the United States of America. College rugby is governed by USA Rugby, and does not fall under the auspices of the NCAA with the exception of 15 NCAA women's programs. Women's Rugby has been classified as an NCAA Emerging Sport since 2002. There are over 900 college teams—male and female—registered with USA Rugby. There are over 32,000 college players registered with USA Rugby, making college rugby the largest section of USA Rugby's membership.
Rugby has been played in universities since as early as the 1800s, but it was the 1960s when rugby really found a foothold in colleges, led by the Catholic colleges such as Notre Dame and particularly the Jesuit universities such as Boston College and St. Joseph's in Philadelphia.
Today, college rugby continues to grow in popularity, and rugby is one of the fastest growing club sports across college campuses. The 32,000 registered college players in 2010 marked a 14% increase from 28,000 college players in 2008. Over 180 college rugby clubs started between 2010 and 2014. The National Small College Rugby Organization grew from 85 teams in 2007 to 151 teams in 2011 and to over 200 men's teams for 2012. Several schools have increased their investments in men's and women's rugby programs, by creating rugby programs with varsity or quasi-varsity status and funding for scholarships, and Notre Dame and Texas have upgraded their rugby programs from "club" status to "Olympic" status. There has been increased interest in college rugby (particularly in rugby sevens) from TV since the International Olympic Committee's announcement in 2009 that rugby would return to the Summer Olympics in 2016. The highest profile college rugby sevens competition is the Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC), which began in 2010. The CRC, which is played every June at PPL Park in Philadelphia, is televised live by NBC Sports and regularly draws attendances of 18,000. In 2015, the CRC set a new attendance record with over 24,000 spectators. Several top schools started a competition in 2013 called the Varsity Cup, with the 2014 Varsity Cup final broadcast live on NBC Sports.
College club rugby includes a national championship competition (since 1980). California has won the majority of titles, with Air Force and BYU also winning multiple championships. In 2011 a new Division 1-A was created with approximately 30 schools forming the new division.
In the United States, college rugby is governed by (in descending order of authority): USA Rugby, geographical unions (GUs) and local area unions (LAUs) (e.g., NERFU). USA Rugby has established a College Management Committee and a collegiate director, Rich Cortez, to oversee college rugby. The NCAA has no authority over college rugby. Often called a club sport, each college team is administered by either the athletic department or the student club department.
In 2011, USA Rugby continued to urge college rugby programs to adopt new conference structures similar to the conferences used by their other athletic programs. The highest profile example was the formation of the Ivy Rugby Conference in 2009. This move signals a shift away from the LAUs and TUs as the governing bodies for regional college rugby.
Winter and spring are the primary seasons for conferences in the pacific, northwest and south regions (e.g., PAC, Southeastern); the fall is the primary season for conferences in the northeast, mid-atlantic and upper midwest regions (e.g., Big 10, Atlantic Coast). Conferences establish playing schedules in the primary season, while in the secondary season the teams often set up friendly matches or focus on playing rugby sevens.
USA Rugby maintains player eligibility guidelines, administered by the local area unions. College players generally have five years of rugby eligibility from the time they graduate high school. On-field disciplinary issues are generally handled by the local area unions, while off-field disciplinary issues are governed by the academic institution and the local area union. USA Rugby's CIPP insurance program provides liability insurance to players, teams, administrators and pitch hosts in exchange for an annual dues payment. Roughly one quarter of college rugby programs offer financial aid to their players.
Outstanding college rugby players are recognized as All-Americans. Qualified All-Americans can represent the United States in international tournaments by playing on the United States national under-20 rugby union team.
College rugby competition is divided into several tiers. The highest is Division I-A (formerly known as the College Premier Division). Other tiers include Division I-AA, and Divisions 2 through 4. USA Rugby generally allows colleges to select the division in which the college thinks it would fit best. Most schools remain in the same division from year-to-year, but there are exceptions. Schools that have been successful in a particular division may move up but are not required to do so; likewise, poorly performing schools may move down a division, but are not required to. Successful schools may have varied reasons for declining promotion. For example, a school may prefer to remain in its current conference against traditional rivals, or a school with a small budget might resist the additional travel expense that might come from switching divisions and conferences.
The most recent significant movement across divisions occurred in 2011 when USA Rugby separated Division I into Division I-A and I-AA. This new arrangement caused Division I schools to choose one or the other, with 31 schools joining Division I-A and the majority of Division I schools joining Division I-AA. Additionally, the creation of Division I-AA caused several successful Division II schools to move up to Division I-A. The evolving division structures, caused significant shifts in schools between Divisions I-A and I-AA in the following years, with half of the original 31 D I-A members leaving by the end of 2013, and new schools from lower divisions taking their place.
Most colleges classify their rugby programs as club sports rather than varsity sports. A small but growing number of universities, however, have begun offering rugby as a varsity sport, realizing that varsity rugby can be profitable, as a successful varsity rugby program can result in national championships and increased marketability.
Other schools have promoted rugby to quasi-varsity status, committing resources for scholarships and for paid full-time coaches, or given rugby some other form of elevated club sport status short of full varsity status.
Since 2002, a growing number of schools have begun adding women's rugby as a varsity sport. Some of those varsity women's rugby programs have received sanctioning by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA has identified women's rugby as an "Emerging Sport." An "Emerging Sport" must gain championship status (minimum 40 varsity programs for team sports, except 28 for Division III) within 10 years, or show steady progress toward that goal to remain on the list. Until then, it is under the auspices of the NCAA and its respective institutions. Emerging Sport status allows for competition to include club teams to satisfy the minimum number of competitions bylaw established by the NCAA.
The NCAA identified women's rugby as an "Emerging Sport" in 2002 in light of the fact that nearly 350 collegiate women's rugby clubs were active. Growth was initially slow, with only 3 women's varsity programs forming within the first few years. The push for varsity rugby status received a boost in 2009 when the International Olympic Committee announced that rugby would return to the Summer Olympics in 2016. Although NCAA Division I programs dropped 72 women's varsity sports during 2008-2012 due to the economic recession, women's rugby programs grew in number during that time frame.
As of the fall of 2016, the NCAA has sanctioned rugby for fifteen schools: eight in Division I, three in Division II, and four in Division III. Current and planned varsity women's rugby programs include the following:
Other schools, such as Penn State and Notre Dame College, do not grant varsity status to women's rugby, but commit significant resources comparable to varsity sports, such as offering scholarships, paid coaches and trainers, and medical attention.
Sports Illustrated named Notre Dame national champion in 1966. In 1967, Sports Illustrated named California national champions after their 37–3 defeat of Notre Dame.
USA Rugby has crowned an official national men's champion each year since 1980. After the 2010 season, USA Rugby split Division 1 into two, with the top flight called Division 1-A Rugby (formerly called the College Premier Division), and the second flight called Division 1-AA.
In 2013, eight of the top college rugby teams withdrew from the USA Rugby D1A competition and organized their own championship called the Varsity Cup. The media and other rugby commentators view the Varsity Cup as equivalent to the USA Rugby D1A championship, given the strength of the teams participating and the fact that the 2013 Varsity Cup finalists – BYU and Cal – finished the spring 2013 season as the consensus #1 and #2 ranked teams in all of college rugby. Four additional schools joined the Varsity Cup for 2014, bringing the number of teams in that tournament to twelve. The Varsity Cup was successful in gaining media exposure, with the 2014 Varsity Cup final televised live on NBCSN. USA Rugby responded to the successful promotion of its Varsity Cup rivals by signing a ten-year contract in October 2014 with IMG that would focus on the marketing and increase exposure of USA Rugby's Collegiate National Championship.
The lists below show the champions for the Division 1-A Rugby and the Varsity Cup championships for each year, along with the teams' final rankings, as ranked by RugbyMag/RugbyToday.com.
The following are the results from the D1 women's national championship, from 1991 to the present. USA Rugby established a new division called "Division I Elite" that began championship competition in 2016.
Division I Elite
Since the 2009 announcement that rugby sevens will be included in the 2016 Olympics, college rugby sevens has grown in popularity. The addition of Rugby 7s to the 2016 Olympic games has led to increasing interest from TV and other media, and an increased emphasis in the collegiate ranks on the 7s game. For example, the University of Texas founded its competitive rugby sevens program in 2010. Cal rugby announced in December 2011 that beginning in 2013 it would use the fall term for sevens.
The Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC) is the highest profile college sevens rugby championship in the US. The inaugural CRC, held in Columbus, Ohio in June 2010 was televised live by NBC and NBC Universal. The result was high ratings, with the CRC ratings beating the NCAA lacrosse championship. The success of the inaugural 2010 tournament lead to a second tournament in 2011 at PPL Park in Philadelphia, again televised live by NBC. NBC recognized that rugby is growing in popularity, participation and interest. In 2014, the Penn Mutual Life Insurance company become the title sponsor of the championship. The tournament has grown each year and has recently been signed to a multi-year deal with several large sponsors and Talen Energy Stadium (Formerly PPL Park) for the tournament to be held in Philadelphia for the several more years. As the sport grows more funding is made available and the success of the tournament in 2016 has shown just how popular this collegiate level event has become. The CRC is run by United World Sports, the same company that organizes the USA Sevens rugby sevens tournament every February in Las Vegas at Sam Boyd Stadium.
USA Rugby announced in September 2011 the creation of a new sevens tournament, the USA Rugby Sevens Collegiate National Championships. The tournament is held annually at the end of the fall season and features 24 teams. Qualification is based on performance at sevens tournaments during the fall, where tournament winners receive automatic bids, with the remaining places in the 24-team field filled by invitation. Some of the more high-profile qualifying tournaments include tournaments based on traditional conference rivalries, such as the Atlantic Coast 7s (composed mostly of ACC schools), the Southeastern 7s (composed mostly of SEC schools) and the Heart of America 7s (composed mostly of Big 12 schools).
The inaugural Championship tournament was held December 16–17, 2011 in College Station, Texas, and was contested by 24 teams that qualified based on performance in qualifying tournaments throughout the fall of 2011. The 2011 tournament was won by Life University, defeating Central Washington 22-17 in overtime. Tim Stanfill of Central Washington was the tournament MVP, Derek Patrick of Miami was the tournament's leading try scorer, and Colton Caraiga of Life University was the tournament's leading points scorer. In the first three years, strong teams that won bids have declined to participate.
The American Collegiate Rugby Championship Sevens (ACRC7s) is an annual college sevens tournament played in late April or early May. For some D1 teams, the ACRC7s is the first spring opportunity to play elite-caliber sevens rugby in the run-up to the Collegiate Rugby Championship. In its first three years, the tournament has taken place at the Virginia Beach Sportsplex in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Team rankings are in parenthesis, based on Goff Rugby Report rankings, current as of January 2017.
Italics indicate second teams of clubs competing in D I-A. These teams are ineligible for Division I-AA playoffs.
American college rugby is governed by USA Rugby. In the past, college rugby competitions have been governed by local unions.
The structure of the college game has evolved significantly in recent years. In an effort to increase the marketability of the game, many traditional rivals have been consolidated into conferences resembling major NCAA conferences such as the Pac-12 and Big Ten.
Beginning around 2010, college rugby programs began realigning into conference structures that mirror the traditional NCAA conferences used by the member schools' other athletic programs. The first high-profile example was the formation of the Ivy League Rugby Conference in 2010. Following the organization of the Ivy League schools, the members of the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference followed suit in 2010.
The Ivy Rugby Conference was formed and had its first full season in 2009. in 2009. The IRC was formed to foster better competition among rugby teams from the Ivy League schools and to raise the quality of play. The IRC has had consistent success in attracting commercial interests. The IRC formed committees to manage the league, independently of the LAUs and TUs. Prior to formation of the IRC, clubs from the eight Ivy League schools had competed in the Ivy Rugby Championship Tournament since 1969.
The formation of the Atlantic Coast Rugby League was announced in March 2010, beginning play in the spring 2011 season. The purpose behind the formation of the ACRL was for the Atlantic Coast schools to schedule rugby union matches against other regional schools, which would both reduce travel and create more competitive matchups with traditional college rivalries. Maryland won the 2011 inaugural ACRL, defeating North Carolina in the title match.
The Atlantic Coast Rugby League schools started moving in the direction of setting up their own conference in 2008, beginning with the Atlantic Coast Invitational (ACI) tournament. The ACI tournament changed to a sevens format in 2010. N.C. State won the 2010 tournament. Beginning in 2011, the winner of the Atlantic Coast Invitational has advanced to the USA Rugby National Championship. N.C. State again won the ACI tournament in 2011 defeating Virginia 24-17 in the final.
In March 2010, nine of the twelve schools that participate in the NCAA's Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) announced that they had formed the Atlantic Coast Rugby League (ACRL) that would begin play in spring 2010. The ACRL quickly gained commercial success, announcing in February 2011, before it had even begun its inaugural season, that it has partnered with Adidas as its corporate sponsor. In addition to its early commercial success, the ACRL expects to improve rugby in the ACRL universities by capitalizing on traditional ACC rivalries, increasing the number of fans, and attracting talented high school rugby players.
In December 2010 a core group of founding schools formed the Southeastern Collegiate Rugby Conference (SCRC). By April 2010 the SCRC had expanded to 11 schools, comprising the entire membership of the NCAA's Southeastern Conference (SEC) at that time except for Arkansas. Tennessee won the 2010 Southeastern Collegiate Rugby Sevens Championship beating LSU 19-17, and repeated in the 2011 SCRC Olympic Sevens Championship, beating Florida 26-14 in the final. Similar to other conferences, the SCRC has also enjoyed commercial success, announcing in fall 2010 that the SCRC had formed commercial partnership agreements with Adidas and the World Rugby Shop.
The Southeastern Collegiate Rugby Conference, formed by the aforementioned 11 SEC schools, was created in late 2010 and began play in the 2011-12 season. Florida won the conference title in the inaugural season, defeating Tennessee in the championship match. Although the SEC has since expanded to 14 schools, the SCRC membership remains at 11.
Several members of the Pac-12 conference agreed in spring 2012 to form a conference beginning play in the 2012-13 season.
The Big Ten schools have formed the Big Ten 7s tournament, which features a round of pool play followed by knockout play. The inaugural Big Ten tournament was held August 2011, and hosted by Wisconsin. Wisconsin and Penn State both won their respective pools. Both teams were also successful in knockout play, reaching the finals, where Wisconsin defeated Penn State 21-14. Wisconsin's Ben Knight was the tournament MVP. Wisconsin's victory at the 2011 Big Ten 7s earned it the right to compete for the national championship at the 2011 USA Rugby Sevens Collegiate National Championships.
The Red River Conference, which replaced the Allied Rugby Conference in 2014–15, is composed mostly of teams from what had been the Big 12 South from 1996 to 2011. The Southwest Conference (SWC) was created in 2011 with the charter members from seven Texas schools. University of Texas was immediately added, and Texas won the conference in the inaugural 2011-12 season.
College rugby includes rivalry trophies such as the World Cup between the University of California, Berkeley and the University of British Columbia (Canada), the Wasatch Cup between BYU and Utah, the University Cup between Texas and Texas A&M, the Koranda Cup between Yale and Princeton, and the Common Wealth Shield between Virginia and Virginia Tech.
The ACRC Bowl Series annual championship 15s tournament takes place in November. College conference champions and select elite sides participate. The tournament provides an opportunity for teams to play outside of their conferences, and is therefore important to establishing final fall 15s college rankings.
Division III is governed by the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO). The National Small College Rugby Organization was created to give a competitive outlet to small colleges which would not otherwise have an opportunity to compete on a national stage. Each year, the NSCRO hosts rugby tournaments for Division III Men's and Women's college teams, and during 2006-2011 it also conducted a Division IV Women's college tournament.
The National Small College Rugby Organization conducted a Division IV championship from 2006 to 2011.