The women’s rugby team is continuing its tradition of excellence despite last year’s move from the NESCAC conference in USA Rugby to the more competitive National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA) League.
“We had been in the USA rugby pathway … and we had been in that pathway for many, many years,” said Head Coach MaryBeth Mathews.
Last year, the program decided it was time for a change. The team had experienced incredible success in the NESCAC conference of USA rugby but didn’t feel it was achieving its full potential.
“Winning is all well and good,” said Mathews. “But winning 60 or 70 to nothing consistently gets old, and you don’t sharpen your skills.”
The team opted to join the NIRA Tier II division in an attempt to face stronger competition, but as the season has shown, this hasn’t prevented the Polar Bears from winning.
The team is currently 4-2 and looking to finish the season 5-2 with one game left against Colby Sawyer (4-3) tomorrow. Its two losses came against West Chester (4-4), a NIRA Tier I program, and Vassar (9-0), a USA Rugby powerhouse.
Yet the team doesn’t shy away from facing challenging teams.
“If we continue to get better as we expect, we will certainly schedule some Tier I teams in our fall schedule,” said Mathews.
The desire to face strong competition and improve is embodied by the entire team and speaks to the women who participate in the program.
“There’s something unique about a gal who sees rugby and says ‘I’ll play that sport,’” said Mathews. “That’s pretty cool. Rugby is a sport that takes considerable strength, confidence and resilience.”
The ultimate goal, though, is to draw more teams into the NIRA. With an influx of teams comes an increase in competition and well-deserved recognition from the NCAA. Between Tier I of the NIRA, which consists of nine teams, and Tier II, which has eight, the league is nearly halfway to its goal of 40.
“There’s a phrase called ‘fastest path to 40,’ because once you hit 40 teams, it’s no longer an emerging sport,” Mathews said. “It’s a legit sport, and the NCAA pays for the championship.”
In Tier II, the Bowdoin rugby team is currently second place. A win against Colby Sawyer would secure that spot. The second tier’s playoff scheme operates as a one game, all-or-nothing showdown between the first and second seed.
Mount Saint Mary’s University (5-3) is in first place and would thus be the host of the final game on November 10.
Mount Saint Mary’s is a Division I program that recruits student-athletes to fill the majority of its roster. Conversely, Bowdoin’s team has a small group of rugby recruits, with eager walk-ons completing the roster each season. Ironically, the Knight’s scrum-half (the link between the forwards and backs) has trained at Bowdoin’s summer rugby camp for the last two years.
All eyes will be on the rugby team this weekend as it travels to New Hampshire to face Colby Sawyer. Expectations aside, the Polar Bears will have to play hard and smart to earn a spot in the championship game.