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Creating a Rewarding Rugby Experience: How One NSCRO Program Built a Sustainable Winner

By Armand, Buzzelli, Ph.D., Robert Morris University, 10/29/19, 10:45AM EDT

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written by Armand Buzzelli, Ph.D.
Director, Campus Recreation
Robert Morris University

Robert Morris University (RMU) is a private, suburban university near Pittsburgh, PA that has a great tradition in rugby dating back to the early 2000s. The program began to reach new heights in 2007 when Shawn Crago, a Penn State University graduate, was brought in to lead the team. With a combination of his talented coaching and western Pennsylvania’s wealth of football players, RMU began developing gifted rugby converts that would go on to win or play in the NSCRO Three Rivers Conference championship playoffs on a nearly annual basis. RMU added a women’s program in 2013 and hired another former Nittany Lion rugby player, Angela Smarto to coach the program. Smarto has helped lead the women’s program to respectability in the region, beginning the 2019 season with a 6-0 record. 

RMU has consistently attracted high-quality student-athletes with average team GPAs for both the 2019 men’s and women’s teams better than 3.0. The most frequent major for our men’s rugby team is engineering, with five players studying to become engineers and on the women’s side, nearly half of the 11-player team is studying either nursing or biology. In the short five-year history that the RMU campus recreation department has named male and female scholar-athletes of the year, two have come from men’s rugby and one from women’s rugby. The "Scholar-Athlete of the Year" is awarded to the top individual in a club sport that has done outstanding in the classroom and on the field. Most recently Zach Seger ’19 won the award this past season. Seger was the team captain and an engineering major who maintained a cumulative GPA of 3.84. He was nominated by a teammate who cited Zach’s work ethic and leadership as a key to the team making a run to the “elite eight” in the NSCRO national championship tournament. 

The success of RMU rugby has prompted university officials to take notice; elevating both the men's and women's teams to elite status in the club sports program. Rugby has been provided with a dramatic increase in funding in recent years including significant scholarship awards for incoming rugby players for both the men’s and women’s teams. The university has traditionally covered large expenses associated with the team traveling to nationals and has provided a first-class environment for student-athletes including regular practice and game times at varsity football stadium. Our graduates have also continued to stay engaged through the alumni association, which also donates separate scholarships to current players on an annual basis.

The university also invested in a new website for club sports and created a sports information director position to cover and do recaps for all of our games. The site, www.rmuclubsports.com has provided more engagement opportunities for players, families, and our local community. Professional looking player photos, team schedules, game results, and recaps are all part of the experience for our RMU program. Potential recruits interested in scholarship opportunities are also encouraged to visit the site or go to www.rmu.edu/recruitme.

In an annual program assessment, our players were provided with a survey instrument that asked them about their learning outcomes, commitment to the program, and the influence rugby had on their experience while enrolled. They were also provided with an open-ended item to include any additional comments on their experience in the program. The top reported outcomes from participation included the following items; an improved understanding of the sport, a sense of belonging, opportunities for unique memories, enhanced school pride, and improved leadership ability. On average our rugby players were more committed to their team than other club sport participants and were more likely to remain enrolled at the institution than respondents from other sports. The following are two quotes gleaned from the assessment, one from a player from each of our rugby teams:

“As I entered as a Freshman I knew I wanted to join some sporting activity to be involved in. My experience has been so rewarding. I have met many friends at RMU through my sport as well as other schools. I have met several other players in the Pittsburgh area who love the sport just as much as I do, I have learned how to be a leader and what it takes to keep a team alive. It is something I enjoy doing and I hope maybe to one day come back and coach.” 

“This team gave me more than friends. Playing rugby gave me a whole new family of brothers.”

For more information on RMU Rugby, you can follow our teams at www.rmuclubsports.com.