Few instances in the history of RIT athletics have left behind a stain like that of the infamous rugby hazing incident of 2007. The episode hospitalized several members of the RIT Roaches Rugby Football Clubs with alcohol poisoning and resulted in both the men's and women's clubs being suspended from RIT for three to five years.
Now, a fresh squad of young rugby enthusiasts have brought the game back to campus. On September 17, the RIT Rugby Club was reinstated and granted permission to hold practice and host competitions. Led by President Joel Witwer, a fourth year imaging science major, this brand new incarnation of the team aims to rebrand the sport's image here and generate a positive presence at RIT.
When Witwer arrived for his first year in the fall of 2007, the wounds left by the suspended club were still fresh. Witwer had played rugby during secondary school in his prior home of Bray, Ireland before attending high school in Pennsylvania, where rugby was non-existent. The same went for that first year at RIT. While studying abroad in New Zealand during his second year, where rugby borders on being a religion, his passion for the game was rekindled and he joined a local Rochester team, the Aardvarks. Hearing that the RIT club would be allowed to apply to be reinstated in 2010 encouraged him to help with the reassembly of the club.
As word of mouth made its way through the proverbial grapevine, around 40 interested players assembled and their case was made to the Competitive Sport Club Federation in the spring of 2010. The committee approved, and from that point on, they were permitted to assemble and run the club however they saw fit. The only stipulation: they couldn't call themselves the Roaches. To show solidarity with all of the other sports clubs and teams on campus, the team went with the most obvious choice for a new mascot: the tiger.
The goal of the club is to clean up the image of rugby and rugby players at a school whose last taste of the sport was a bitter one. Witwer has often heard the phrase, "They're a drinking team with a rugby problem," and makes no bones about the need to distance the new team from that attitude. "We just want to be a rugby team. We want to be a team that is a team because we love to play rugby," said Witwer.
The love of the game is the main motivation for those involved, and bringing the sport back into the public eye is one of their major focuses. "It's a great spectator sport," said club treasurer and fourth year imaging science major Rob Harrigan, who was proudly sporting his brand new RIT Rugby sweatshirt. "It's a very fluid game," Witwer said, who described the sport as "controlled but brutal." Witwer went on to say that rugby is "only dangerous when played wrong," and both he and Harrigan want to pass their knowledge of the sport on to the new members.
Interestingly enough, half of the new team has never played the game before. The squad has pulled members with all levels of knowledge of the game, from those who have played previously on school and club teams to those who have never even seen the game played. They also boast a good number of former football players, including Harrigan, as well as athletes of all shapes and sizes. The less formidable need not worry, however: "If you play rugby properly, size is only an intimidation factor," Witwer stated.
In the club's two-week-long run, they've established a squad of 25 to 30 regulars, with the more experienced members helping out the newer ones. Witwer said that those new to the sport make up for their lack of technique with sheer enthusiasm, which serves them well as their knowledge of the game develops. The team's coach, local rugby player John Vakiener, aids in this development as they begin moving towards the first of several planned on-campus scrimmages against St. John Fisher and the University of Rochester, as well as local club teams, the Rochester Aardvarks and the Rochester Colonials. The first game is proposed for October 16, the Saturday of Brick City Weekend, against St. John Fisher on the practice field behind Ellingson Hall.
The team is in the process of becoming associate members of the New York State Rugby Conference (NYSRC), and will apply for full membership for the 2011 to 2012 year. By this point, the team will no longer be in the hands of two of its founders, Witwer and Harrigan. The two will graduate in the spring, but have the utmost confidence in the future of the club. When discussing how the team will fare in the NYSRC in the coming years and whether they'll make it to Division I, Witwer jokingly stated, "They better make a D1 team. I'm putting my name on RIT Rugby."
Through the commitment, passion and determination you'd expect from players of such an intense sport, the members of the new RIT Tigers Rugby Club have been the catalyst for something that has the potential to redefine their history on campus. They've given themselves a chance to create their own legacy and, from the looks of things, they're well on their way. As Witwer put it, "At RIT, we're all tigers. We're investing back in the school, and hopefully the student population will invest back in us."