On the ball: Revived rugby club lures "old boys"

Thirty years ago, there was no Scott Stadium to house tens of thousands of loyal UVA football fans. But that was okay, because tens of thousands of University of Virginia football fans didn't exist. The football team– in a word– sucked.

Luckily, contact sports fans could go to the Virginia Rugby Football Club to see championship-level play. Formed by graduate students as the first rugby club in the state, Virginia Rugby was also one of the most popular, with over 100 players. The club's success even landed the members coverage in Sports Illustrated in 1969.

"We had more minutes of playing time than any sport at the University," says Courtney Hoopes, who joined the club four years after its 1961 founding and now serves as president.

But the University football team's growing respectability distracted fans, and an undergraduates-only rugby club siphoned young talent. Virginia Rugby still won the occasional championship, but membership sagged, and the club risked falling below the public radar.

Now, Virginia Rugby is poised for a comeback.

"The nature of the rugby community has changed," says coach Jeff Hollier, whose resume includes not only being short-listed for the Eagles (the U.S. national team), but also nine broken noses.

"Rugby was, by decree, an amateur sport for almost all of its history," Hollier says. "It was allowed to go professional about 10 years ago. In making that change, a lot of the organization has changed. We're moving to a much more professional style of operation."

That means club organizers, all of whom are unpaid, will spend a lot more time recruiting and fundraising. Hollier is especially interested in maintaining alumni relations.

"In the past, the old boys were just a revered part of the rugby community," Hollier says. Now, he wants them to take a more active role.

The club's efforts have already begun to pay off. In August, Virginia Rugby stopped bouncing around municipal fields and found itself a comfy home in Keswick.

"We have a private facility at Edgehill Farm," says Hollier. "We'll be having our practices and home matches there."

With ads in the Daily Progress and sign-ups on Grounds, Virginia Rugby is finding new ways to attract players. "They can be anybody who wants to learn to play rugby, or already knows how to play," says Hoopes.

"We have two sides now," he adds, referring to the 15-player strings that make up a game. "We're trying to build back up to three, maybe four."

So will we be seeing any more Virginia Rugby trophy winners in the near future? Despite a four- to six-year turnover rates for players, Hollier has high hopes.

"We generally have," he says, "very good athletes with very good strategic thinking."