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Women’s Rugby Becomes Harvard’s 42nd Varsity Sport


Radcliffe rugby players in action in 1984

Radcliffe rugby players in action in 1984

Photograph by Jim Harrison

A screen shot of the club's homepage

A screen shot of the club's homepage

Harvard Athletics announced today that women’s rugby—now a club sport—will become a varsity sports program, beginning in the 2013-2014 academic year. According to the University announcement, that will increase the number of Harvard varsity sports for women to 21 and the total number of varsity programs to 42—in both cases, the largest number of such teams at any American institution. (See the current list of varsity programs here, under the "sports" tab. Because indoor and outdoor track count separately, the total roster is 41 programs.) Nichols Family director of athletics Bob Scalise said in the announcement:

We are delighted to add women’s rugby as our twenty-first varsity sport for women. We are proud to be the largest intercollegiate athletic program in the country and to have the greatest number of intercollegiate athletic opportunities for women of any college or university nationwide. We have been impressed by our team’s enthusiastic engagement in their sport as well as the explosive growth of rugby as a sport for women. We hope that our decision will be a catalyst for other schools to follow our lead and consider adding rugby as an intercollegiate sport for women.

As his statement suggests, Harvard will be the first Ivy League institution to sponsor rugby as a varsity program. Division 1 women’s rugby is classified as an emerging sport by the National Collegiate Athletics Association’s Committee on Women's Athletics—a designation meant to encourage growth in the sport as an intercollegiate program; rugby was first so identified in 2002-2003, and must show steady progress toward a minimum number of teams (28) within a decade to remain on the list. Harvard’s announcement cites USA Rugby’s census of more than 300 collegiate women’s rugby clubs (and 11,000 players), and notes that the sport returns to the Olympics in 2016. USA Rugby describes the game as “the only full-contact sport in the NCAA for women.”

As a club sport, begun in 1982 (see "Scrum's the Word," Harvard Magazine's 1984 cover story on the team early in its history, and a notable alumna's reaction), Harvard women have won national championships in 1998 and 2011, according to the release. “Rugger Mothers,” by Jenny Davis ’06, published in Harvard Magazine in 2007—the club’s silver-anniversary year—is a personal account of the battling Radcliffe Rugby Football Club. She quotes Louy Meacham ’85 as saying of the early players, “Word was out on the street that they were looking for people who had one or two screws loose…people who were a little off the beaten track, but with an incredibly fierce competitive instinct.” Proud of their Radcliffe ties, the players donned its red color. (Math concentrator Emily Riehl ’06 also found the sport a great outlet.)

Updated August 10, 2012, 9:30 a.m.:

In an e-mail, rugby alumna Katie Dowty '06 writes:

That is amazing news! I really believe rugby will become an NCAA sport very soon, and I'm so proud that Harvard and the Radcliffe Rugby program will be at the forefront of that movement. I know we're not the first school to go varsity, but I think Harvard making this switch might be the tipping point for collegiate rugby if it encourages other schools to follow suit.…Rugby requires a good mix of brains and brawn and we all know Harvard has no shortage of smart athletes! I really think the program could become a powerhouse.

As for her involvement with the sport since graduating, Dowty reports: 

After college I played for Beantown, a local women's club in Boston, where I first began to play 7's (the version of the game that will be played in the Olympics). I joined the U.S. Women's National 7s team in 2010 and now train full time at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, as one of eight contracted athletes. I'd love to have a fellow Harvard alumna join me here in the near future!

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