Amid the Alumni & Family Weekend buzz, cheers could be heard all the way over at the newly renovated Grauert Field where Fairfield’s Division III men’s team trounced Southern Connecticut State University by a score of 31-12. The match was played as part of “Rugby Fest,” a tradition that takes place during the family festivities each year.
According to the director of rugby and head coach of the men’s division I team Austin Ryan, this year’s Rugby Fest was just that—a celebration of the historic sport that featured “many tailgaters in the parking lots, the hill and sidelines packed with spectators and high-quality rugby from our men’s and women’s teams!”
According to their official schedule, the men’s division I team has split the difference this season, with three wins and three losses. Their bye week fell on the seventh and final week of the Liberty Rugby Conference regular season schedule. With this, the Fairfield squad falls to seventh overall out of 11 teams in the conference, beating out Syracuse University, Northeastern University, Harvard University and Nazareth College in the standings.
The Division III Team
On the other hand, however, the men’s division III team has enjoyed lots of growth and learning over the season under their new head coach, John Minogue ‘22, a recent graduate student and former Fairfield University rugby player.
The purpose of having the Division III squad, according to Minogue, is the growth and development of athletes into rugby players. He mentioned that lots of players look to join rugby from different sports backgrounds; whether they were a football player, a wrestler or even a track runner, the Division III team helps turn interested athletes into real rugby talents. Oftentimes, first-year students and sophomores will join looking to get their foot in the door with the sport.
Ryan shared his philosophy on creating multiple levels of rugby teams, which creates access to the sport for all. “We don’t ‘cut’ per se, but we don’t put anyone in a dangerous position,” he shared. “This is why we have multiple levels on both men’s and women’s rugby; students can participate at a level relative to their experience and interest.”
When referring to the differences between the Division I and the Division III programs, Minogue shared that “there’s not a huge difference in ability and skill and athleticism. The difference is the rugby IQ.”
His role, alongside other coaches, is to ensure the development of rugby IQ for the younger players at an early stage so that they are able to join the Division I squad later on in their four years at Fairfield. Through extensive chalk talks, film sessions and drills, the players on his team have excelled at a high level and have grown with the sport.
Minogue expanded on the vision of the team, and what it means to be a rugby player at this level. He specifically refers to the mindset of Tom O’Connor ‘75, the former director of rugby for Fairfield University.
“Tom O’Connor always talks about the tradition of rugby and how the institution of rugby and the sport itself is obviously super important,” Minogue commented. “And the reason I bring this up is because the tradition of rugby is always, ‘let’s grab some misfit guys, we know that they’re great athletes and let’s get them to come play rugby.’”
The Typical Practice Regimen
Minogue and Ryan share a practice concept that works for their respective levels of play. On one hand, the Division I rugby players stick to a 6 a.m. workout routine in the Walsh Athletic Center, which Ryan notes is the only club sport at Fairfield University to have this opportunity.
The practices put a heavy emphasis on conditioning for the players; keeping them fast and in shape is a key to success for the team going forward. Both teams warm up ahead of practice, which is a time to shake off any stress and baggage from a long day of coursework. After getting warm and taking some time to focus on individual skills, each team will split up and scrimmage the other half of their team in what Ryan dubs a “mini-game”.
The environment, describes Minogue, is competitive but rewarding. The team is a cohesive unit and all compete to be the best in practice, but still take the time to come together as a team afterwards and congratulate each other on their hard work.
In Minogue’s mind, the “mini-game” is a good time to work on team strategy. Whether it’s drilling defense plays or running offensive plays, the team is constantly learning and developing under his leadership. He additionally describes their practices as “vocal”; being loud and communicating on the field helps new players see the plays being drawn up and brings them to life.
Ryan, in his role as the director of rugby, assists admissions in recruiting rugby players to the school as a normal Division I sport would. According to him, 19 students joined the men’s rugby team as part of recruitment efforts. In his eyes, these candidates for the team not only are standout rugby players, but also people who will add value to Fairfield’s campus community.
His goal for this year is to match that number of recruits for the men’s team, while hopefully adding three to five recruits for the women’s side.
By continuing the team’s community service efforts while also upholding a grade-point-average requirement, Ryan’s program is able to develop athletes into not only well-rounded players, but well-rounded students as a whole. “‘Student’ comes way before ‘athlete’!” he shared.
Ryan holds three pillars in the evolution of Fairfield Rugby. The first was to be competitive. His belief in being competitive spawned back in 2019 and 2020, which he feels the program has accomplished through its success over the past few seasons.
The second: “Learn how to win”. This indicator defined the 2021-22 campaign for the teams, where the squads looked to find wins even among losses. That idea ties into his final and most recent concept, which is “engineering championship DNA” in his players.
Ryan has seen this championship DNA growing in his players, as recently as this season. Even after the team lost to Brown University, the former national champions, he noticed that his players were proud of themselves for fighting tooth-and-nail with such a high-tier team. To create this DNA, Ryan urges his players to “overcome the bad, take positives from the mediocre and continue the good.”
So, next time you hear a roar of cheers coming from the southern end of campus, you might have just heard Fairfield University’s rugby team engineering this winning mentality out on Grauert Field in front of a packed group of family, friends and supporters.