College rugby is the fastest growing college sport in the US and one of the fastest growing sports in the nation. Women's rugby has been classified as an NCAA Emerging Sport since 2002. Between 2004 and 2010, rugby was the fastest growing sport in the United States when its popularity increased by roughly 350% (when the estimated active participants increased from 18,500 in 2006 to 65,000 in 2010). There are over 900 college teams—male and female—registered with USA Rugby and hundreds more with National Collegiate Rugby.
There are over 32,000 college players registered with USA Rugby, making college rugby the largest section of USA Rugby's membership. In 2011 USA Rugby created a new Division 1-A with approximately 30 schools forming a new premier division.
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. College club rugby has included several championship competitions since 1980.
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. 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.
In the United States, college rugby was traditionally governed by (in descending order of authority): USA Rugby, geographical unions (GUs) and local area unions (LAUs) (e.g., NERFU) and administered by a College Management Committee. By 2011 USA Rugby was urging college rugby programs to adopt new conference structures like the conferences used by their other athletic programs. The highest profile example was the formation of the Ivy Rugby Conference in 2009. This move signaled a shift away from the LAUs and GUs as the governing bodies for regional college rugby.
College rugby is often called a club sport because teams are usually administered by a student club sports department rather than the intercollegiate athletics department. Some schools have promoted rugby to varsity status, committing resources for scholarships and paid coaches, or given rugby an elevated status short of full varsity status. The NCAA has no authority over men's college rugby, but 27 schools have opted to govern their women's teams under all applicable NCAA bylaws for recruiting and eligibility, under the NCAA's Emerging Sports for Women program.
In 2019, in the wake of USA Rugby's bankruptcy declaration, the College Rugby Association of America (CRAA) formed to oversee the top-level men's and women's divisions.
Lynchburg College team photo after defeating Emory & Henry College, 35–15. Fall 2015
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 (e.g., Big Ten, 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.
College rugby competition in the USA is divided into several tiers:
The highest is Division I-A for men and Division I Elite for women
Division I-AA for men and Division I for women
The separate National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA) consists of women's NCAA DI, II and III rugby programs that adhere to NCAA organizational rules under a sanctioning agreement with USA Rugby.
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.
Significant movement across men's 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.
The governance of collegiate rugby was split and diverged in 2021. The umbrella of the USA Rugby Collegiate Council includes College Rugby Association of America (CRAA), American Collegiate Rugby Association (ACRA), American College Rugby (ACR), and independent conferences.National Collegiate Rugby (NCR), formerly NSCRO, challenged the existing structure and expanded beyond small colleges to include the higher divisions. Men's and women's conferences each chose as individual conferences (in some cases, schools within conferences also chose) to align with USA Rugby or NCR.
Twelve women's conferences that played historically in DII left the oversight of USA Rugby to join NCR. Beginning in 2021, women's college rugby within NCR is split between Small College and an Open Division. The Open Division, which NCR now refers to as its DI, is made up of teams from these 12 conferences.
According to Goff Rugby Report, the DI Elite women's teams are part of College Rugby Association of America, and so are most women's DI conferences (eight conferences) and the independents. There are also a couple of DII or hybrid conferences within CRAA.
The American Collegiate Rugby Association is a group of four DII-level women's conferences remaining under the aegis of USA Rugby, which included 62 teams as of June 2020.
The collegiate women's programs in the NIRA operate their own regular season competition and championship.
In 2021, most DII men's rugby conferences aligned with NCR.
Two men's conferences that played DIA in 2019 joined NCR in 2021, as have three DIAA conferences. Under NCR, they competed in fall 2021 as DI and DIAA, with separate postseasons.
Men's DIAA was dramatically split in 2021, with both NCR and CRAA-run postseasons in the fall. There was also a CRAA-run postseason in spring 2022. According to Goff Rugby Report, there was no way to have a sole men's DIAA national champion in 2021–2022.
In 2021, there are five men's DIA conferences plus independents under USA Rugby/CRAA.
Majority of colleges classify their rugby programs as club sports rather than varsity sports. A small but growing number of universities, however, have begun labeling rugby as a varsity sport, realizing that rugby can be profitable, as a successful rugby program can result in national championships and increased marketability.
Men's rugby uses varsity facilities, has full time coaching staff
Women's Rugby: An NCAA Emerging Sport
Logo of NCAA Rugby with the "Emerging Sport" at bottom
Since 2002, a growing number of schools have begun adding women's rugby as an NCAA sport. These women's rugby programs have received sanctioning by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA has identified women's rugby as an NCAA Emerging Sports for Women. 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 5 women's NCAA programs forming within the first few years. The push for NCAA 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 schools dropped 72 women's varsity sports teams during 2008–2012 due to the economic recession, women's rugby programs grew in number during that time frame.
As of the fall of 2022, the NCAA has sanctioned rugby for 27 schools across 3 Divisions. Current NCAA women's rugby programs include the following: This league is known as the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA)
For the 2022–23 season, Princeton University will join as an NCAA D1 team.
Penn State vs West Chester University of Pennsylvania (2008). Nichole Lopes '07 '09 with the ball for Penn State
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.
Except for interruption by the COVID-19 pandemic, 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 viewed 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 Varsity Cup folded in November 2017 when the organizer, broadcast partner and a major sponsor, Penn Mutual, withdrew their support.
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 regular season rankings, as ranked by RugbyMag/RugbyToday.com.
2019 fall: Iowa Central Community College 36 - 21 Western Michigan
2020 spring: cancelled (pandemic)
2020 fall: cancelled (pandemic)
2021 spring: cancelled (pandemic)
2021 fall: Tennessee 36 - 31 Bowling Green (CRAA)
2022 spring: Fresno State 22 - 17 Kansas (ACR)
National Collegiate Rugby (Men)
2021 fall: Virginia Tech 34 – 22 West Chester
Women's College Club Division 1
The following are the results from the D1 women's club 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
2016 – Penn State 15, Brigham Young 5
2017 – Penn State 28, Lindenwood 25
2018 – Lindenwood 36, Life University 9
2019 – Lindenwood 36, Life University 19
2020 – cancelled (pandemic)
2021 – Lindenwood 54, Life University 12
2022 – Lindenwood 21, Life University 0
2022 (fall) – Lindenwood 17, Life University 15 (CRAA, moved from spring 2023 to fall 2022)
2021 (fall) – Life University 87, Northern Iowa 3 (For NCR in 2021, Life University fielded a largely freshman and sophomore team.)
College Rugby Sevens
Since the 2009 announcement that rugby sevens will be included in the 2016 Olympics, college rugby sevens has grown more popular.
The addition of Rugby 7s to the 2016 Summer Olympics has led to increasing interest from TV and other media coverage, 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 United States. 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 led 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 grew each year and was 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 several more years. The success of the tournament in 2016 showed how popular this collegiate level event had become. The National Collegiate Rugby Organization obtained the rights to the CRC in 2020 and since 2021 has staged its championship 7s matches at the tournament in New Orleans.
USA Rugby announced in September 2011 the creation of a new sevens tournament, the USA Rugby Sevens Collegiate National Championships. The tournament was held annually at the end of the fall season for its first three years and featured 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 between April and 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.
Men's Division 1 ACRC7s Champions
2014: American International College 38–17 Kutztown University
2015: Kutztown University 36–27 American International College
2016: Naval Academy 17–14 Kutztown University
Team rankings are in parenthesis, based on Goff Rugby Report rankings, current as of January 2017.
The Mid-Eastern conference disbanded in summer 2012, as most members went to the D1-A Big Ten Universities or to the D1-AA Mid-America conference.
The Midwest conference disbanded in summer 2012, as most members went to the D1-A Big Ten Universities or to Division 2.
Organization and conferences
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. 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.
Conferences and conference tournaments
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. 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.
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.
Nine D1A rugby programs currently compete in the Big Ten Universities conference, which was founded in 2012.
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 charter members from seven Texas schools. University of Texas was immediately added, and Texas won the conference in the inaugural 2011–12 season.
The ACRC Bowl Series championship 15s tournament took place annually for three years from 2014 until 2016. College conference champions and select elite sides participated. The tournament provided an opportunity for teams to play outside of their conferences and was therefore relevant to establishing final fall 15s college rankings.
Small College Rugby, formerly known as Division III, is governed by the National Collegiate Rugby Organization, formerly the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO). In 2020, NSCRO re-branded as National Collegiate Rugby. 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 Men's and Women's college teams, and during 2006–2011 it also conducted a Division IV Women's college tournament.
^AIC RugbyArchived 2015-10-29 at the Wayback Machine. Accessed October 14, 2015. ("We're a young varsity model program that enjoys full time coaching, and all the other trimmings of varsity collegiate athletics.")
^"VARSITY CUP SHUFFLE, BYU STRIPPED OF TITLE". Rugby Today. February 6, 2017. Archived from the original on February 14, 2017. Retrieved 2017-02-13. At the 2016 Varsity Cup annual general meeting, participating universities voted unanimously, with one abstention, to strip BYU of its 2015 title for using an ineligible player in the 2015 Varsity Cup postseason.