College Rugby: Rethinking the Structure


Ok, I get it. The college rugby landscape is huge, literally the size of our country and travel can be a problem, is a problem, for the mass majority.  Traditional rivalries of football and basketball are great but let’s face it…all the other sports essentially follow different models and play different universities. Rugby is fluid, rugby has small schools that can dominate bigger schools. Why? Because the smaller school focuses on rugby, not competing at in Division 1 football. As a result you have a Wisconsin-Whitewater whose football team won’t compete with Ohio State but whose rugby team will.  It blurs the traditional lines of conference rivalries. 

After learning about the development of the new Libery Conference I was a bit dismayed to realize collegiate rugby is still a mess. I get there are separate commitment levels, if Iona doesn’t want to travel across country to face Arizona State then they don’t have to, if Dayton chooses to step up and compete among the best committing to traveling around they country then that’s up to them. The fix is so very simple it’s maddening. 

Now let me say this…I am well aware that this is a pipe dream, the ramblings of a rugby fan with more common sense then money or influence, but it’s a mental itch I need to scratch and it’s my blog, so I’ll write what I want. 

Let’s talk structure. There should be only three levels of competitive rugby (DI Elite, DII Regional, and DIII Independent), three National Champions, promotion, relegation, and a certain level of scheduling independence. The structure I outline below would provide prospective college players a clearer understanding of the programs commitment level and will help recruiting. So let’s get to it. 


DI Elite: Here is where the Cal, BYU, Life, Central Washington, and Arkansas State squads of the country reside, just to name a few; those colleges who have registered with USA Rugby (USAR) and who’ve made a commitment to varsity rugby, who travel cross country, who face the best in order to be the best, essentially the equivalent of NCAA DI Football Championship Series.  Here is where rugby playing colleges should aspire to be.  The elite. 

Each year DI Elite schedule their season within DI colleges and, like football, can schedule DII schools who want to test themselves. DI Elite, however, must schedule over half of their schedule against other DI Elites. 

DI Elite has the ability to form conferences but the conferences must contain no less than six Elite programs but can include fringe DII Regional schools so long as it doesn’t interfere with their regional commitments outlined below in the DII Regional section. 

The playoffs would include the top 16 according to DI rankings using the World Rugby point system. 

Sevens Elite: These schools agree to play in nationwide tournaments structured like the HSBC World Series with the World Series point system used to determine the national champion. The final tournament of the year is an expanded National Showcase Invitational hosted by an Elite program and open to all three divisions. 

DII Regional: Here is where the vast majority of the remaining registered colleges reside, maybe they don’t have the commitment or the money to travel around the nation. Here they are divided by USAR identified Competative Regions (CR), the CR essentially becoming their conference. Within DII it is likely there will be a cluster of haves and have nots, schools who are knocking on the door of Elite and others struggling to stay DII and the independent scheduling will accommodate for that. Schools would register with USAR within their CR and schedule matches within their CR. Schools can also schedule any club in the country they want but they must schedule at least half of their matches within their CR. Yes, the big fish will beat up on the little fish but that happens now, it measures commitment, and strong competition grows stronger programs. 


The playoffs would encompass the eight CR Champions based on win/loss and include the next eight highest nationally ranked schools. All participants must commit to traveling or the next highest ranked school willing to travel will take the playoff spot. DII schools not participating in the playoffs will not be relegated to DIII by USAR unless the program fails to commit in back to back eligible years. 

Sevens Regional: Commit to participating in Sevens tournaments within their CR to include the Elite tournaments held within their CR. Sevens Regional schools are free to schedule any tournament nationwide so long as it doesn’t interfere with scheduling regional competitions. 

DIII Independent: Here resides the rest, registered and unregistered colleges as well as university recreation club programs. These schools are literally independent in every sense of the word. If they register with USAR they move to DII and must follow the DII scheduling rules unless they declare their intent to stay DIII. 

The DIII Independent playoffs would require schools to commit to traveling and participating in an organized playoff hosted by USAR. If only one team commits they must still travel, as a squad, to the championship venue to claim the trophy or the title is considered vacant. 

Sevens Independent: Here they would be eligible to participate in any tournament nationwide but must register with USAR to participate in Elite Sevens. 

Promotion/Relegation: This process is simple and is all about commitment, nothing more. Commit to the travel requirements of the varsity level Elite and the school can join DI. Want to register to compete in DII, simple…pay your dues, commit to playing at least half your schedule within your CR, complete in the playoffs when eligible, and your promoted. Decide to go the other way? That’s easy too, just declare intent to no longer compete in the Division the school is currently in and follow the rules of the Division down. Promotion and relegation is purely school driven, what they are capable of doing, what they are willing to commit to. 

The Season: There should be two college seasons, one for 15s and one for 7s. The collegiate 15s season should compete in the spring and conclude with the national championship playoffs. The 7s season would be in the fall, also concluding with the national showcase tournament. 

Teams can participate in 15s and 7s in the off season but those matches and tournaments won’t go towards national standings or titles.

Conclusion: This system isn’t a division of how good a school’s rugby program is although it would essentially divide out that way. In truth a DIII Independent program can be as good if not better than an Elite program; it’s not a class system, it’s a commitment system.  Rugby programs cost money and until their is more of everything programs will only commit to what they’re capable of. There is no shame in that.

As a fan I’m tired of not being able to follow who’s who and what’s what, Varsity Cup verses D1A. Call me naive but this system seems feasible. Call me stupid but I don’t see anything wrong with this structure. No matter the agenda, no matter the goal, it can fit in this structure. People can make money, people can avoid universities/individuals they have issues with, programs can create their own broadcast deals…all within this structure and the only common denominators are organization and growth. I think that’s something we can all agree on. 

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2 comments

  1. Jason, thanks for the article. I also agree there needs to be a realignment. I like the direction the women are heading in with the potential division re-designation to group teams appropriately. This needs to happen for the men as well. There is no reason a highly talented D1AA UC-Davis squad (representing a school of ~35,000 graduate/undergraduate students) is competing lower than a service academy school (representing a population of ~4,000 only undergraduate students). However, I have to disagree on the seasons you mentioned in the above piece. I feel the USA rugby community AS A WHOLE would be better served with a FALL 15s season/championship and a SPRING 7s season/championship. Many of the top schools play 15s in the fall out of necessity based on weather. The D1A West, Big Ten Universities, and the East Conferences all play in the Fall because they can’t play in the spring. Just reference last years national play-in game in mid-April when Cal-Poly was supposed to travel to play Air Force in Colorado Springs. Their flight was cancelled because the weather was so bad and the airports were closed that their plane couldn’t even land. November to late March weather is terribly unpredictable for the schools in the conferences mentioned above. However, ALL schools can make a fall 15 season work. Sevens is also more flexible in the spring because there are more training and play opportunities especially now that the National 7s Tournament has moved to a May date until a Dec date. For instance, in 2015, eleven automatic qualifying tournaments were held during one weekend of early April. Spring plays better for sevens rugby since many schools can feed straight into club tournaments (with collegiate divisions) that are held during the summer with a culminating event being the Reb Bull Uni 7s in early August.

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    • Thank you Joseph and thank you for your comments. You’re not the first to point out the switch in seasons and I’m not opposed to that. I selected spring XVs to end during traditional USAR national championships but so long as USAR defines a season, no matter what it is, ALL schools follow it. Player welfare was one of my thoughts regards the split between XVs & 7s as well since many play both.
      Thank you again!

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