A year after starting a successful men’s rugby program, Wesley College announced it will offer a women’s team this season led by administrator Chris “Coach Baby” Henry.
Henry is also taking on the duties of leading the men’s team at Wesley for Kevin Phillipson, who helped bring both Henry and the sport to Wesley. Phillipson has moved to North Carolina, where he’ll lead Southern Pines’ rugby.
With the addition of the women’s team, Wesley becomes just the second college in the state to feature one, joining the University of Delaware.
Rugby’s growth has come fast at Wesley
In just over a year, the number of collegiate rugby teams in Delaware has now doubled as Wesley College helps the spread of the sport south to the Dover area.
“Rugby has now hit Delaware and we’re being treated like a real sports team,” Henry said. “That means we get on the schedules, we get to use the facilities at Wesley, while also having study groups for our students because education is number one, number two is rugby.“
Rugby began at Wesley last year with the start of a men’s 15-player team led by Phillipson. They set the bar high in their first season, going 12-0 and reaching the championship game.
While rugby is traditionally played 15-a- side, sevens - or seven-a- side rugby - is quickly becoming one of the more popular forms of the sport. Rugby made its return to the Summer Olympics in Rio in the sevens format, while the Rugby World Cup, Commonwealth Games and Pan American Games all feature rugby sevens play.
With the growth of sevens rugby and the success of the men’s team, Wesley experimented with both a men’s and women’s sevens teams in the spring. That yielded positive results, especially on the women’s side, which had a better than expected turnout.
“I had five women in January, by the end of February I had 11 players, which is phenomenal,” Henry said. “We went 2-8 for our first season, but six of our losses came by a try or two, and from what I understand from other coaches, that’s unheard of.”
After the success of the spring sevens programs, Wesley decided to make the move and add a women’s tier II rugby program alongside the men’s.
A growing sport offers opportunities statewide
Now, as an actual athletic program at Wesley, the women’s rugby program can recruit and even offer scholarships. While Henry says 50 percent of the team’s starting players are recruits from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and even Georgia and Colorado, Henry hopes the new tier II program will help attract some attention from in-state residents.
Wesley’s new program offers a unique opportunity for players to compete at the collegiate level in a still growing sport.
“There might be one out of nine players that come out that know a little about rugby,” Henry said. “Most are coming from other sports like softball, while a few have never played a team sport in their lives.”
Henry’s efforts to grow the game throughout the state don’t end at Wesley, as she worked alongside Rugby Delaware and assistant coach Ken Gordon, holding a six-week rugby camp for players under 13 at the Greater Dover Boys & Girls Club earlier in the summer.
Next, Henry hopes to bring rugby to high schools, with some future area students having already committed to Wesley to play rugby.
“We’re hoping to move into Caesar Rodney High School and start rugby through the physical education department and, hopefully, in the fall we’ll be installed in the school district,” Henry said. “I have three seniors at Lake Forest who have played rugby and chosen Wesley to get their education and play rugby.”
Is rugby dangerous?
When it comes to any contact sport, injuries are obviously going to happen - it’s unavoidable.
However, what can be avoided are the unnecessary - and sometimes most traumatic - injuries that can occur when players aren’t taught proper techniques.
Concussions are a hot-button issue of the day, especially when it comes to youth sports. While football is usually the main target of this issue, one could easily make the same claims about rugby which has similarities to football.
Henry, a USA Rugby-certified coach, quickly dismissed the comparisons to football when it comes to concerns over the game’s safety.
“If you have any questions, come watch us play and practice - rugby is safer than football,” Henry said. “The difference between rugby and football is the training. The concussion rate is much smaller than it is in football.”
In football, a defenseless player can be victimized quickly, especially with players running full speed at their targets. As Henry explained, rugby has many differences from football, mainly “scrums” or “scrummages,” where players are packed closely together to restart play as they fight for possession rather than the clashing together of lines in football.
“When you see a scrum, that’s just two teams coming together like the frontline in a football game,” Henry said. “But, the players bind together to push one to either side to win the ball by kicking the ball backward. It’s not as dangerous as people think. It’s actually much safer than football.
“We are strict in our training and drills,” she said. “Tackling, we wear no pads, just mouth guards and cleats. You’re not trying to knock someone off their feet. You’re going cheek-to- cheek, just stopping forward progress. There are no high-hits. You’re actually using your shoulders to wrap around someone’s waist and take them to the ground.”
Now is the time to start playing rugby
While the sport is still in its infancy here in Delaware, the spike in interest at Wesley is a good sign that rugby is on the rise in the First State.
Since moving the women’s program to tier II, the team has 28 women ready to take the field for the Wolverines, while the men’s team has more than 35 members for the fall team.
While the growth is positive, for a real substantial spike in participation it will take bringing the game to high schools.
“It’s important that we get into the high schools now so everyone gets a chance to play rugby,” Henry said. “It doesn’t matter your size, we’re a family. It’s the biggest fraternity you’ll ever be a part of.”