Even though they compete with varsity competition, the University of Alberta Men’s Rugby Club certainly doesn’t enjoy the same benefits as a varsity team.
Unlike their varsity competitors, the club is self-financed, paying for practice facilities, coaching, and road trips. By contrast, the UBC Thunderbirds rugby team, which enjoys varsity status and plays in the some of the same tournaments as the U of A rugby club, gets help from the Thunderbird Rugby Endowment, a fund that provides over $30,000 a year for field rentals, coaches, scholarships, and travel.
“Our team is completely self-funded so we have to pay coaches to come on trips with us,” club Vice President of Finance Connor Vaandering said. “All our members have to pay, as well as fundraising to help, so it’s a challenge financially for sure.”
Recreation Services does help the team occasionally, allowing them to use U of A facilities such as the Pavillion and the main gym for free, but those facilities are in high demand, and the team isn’t always guaranteed a spot.
Rugby is one of the more expensive clubs on campus. Whenever they travel to tournaments, they have to pay for the entirety of the trip, whereas varsity schools would get those costs covered.
“We’re pretty competitive, and we play in a lot of high level competitions,” Vaandering said. “So the battle there is us organizing fundraising to buy facilities to practice in, and to raise money to pay for flights and hotels when we travel.”
There aren’t any male varsity ruby teams in Alberta, as the sport isn’t officially recognized by Canada West, but club teams operating out of the U of A, the University of Lethbridge, the University of Calgary, and Mount Royal all play in a self-organized league. The first matchup of each season between the U of A and U of C clubs is fondly referred to as the Little Brown Jug game.
That game was the first big matchup on the schedule this year for the club, and it’s one that’s been dominated by the U of C in recent years. This year however, the U of A club won the Jug for the first time since 2005. Each year’s score is written on the side of the trophy, and for Vaandering it showed the club’s consistent improvement over recent years.
“You can see the progress of our club just by looking at (the trophy),” Vaandering said.
“This year, to win it was huge,” club president Mike Adibe added. “To start the season off like that was just phenomenal.”
The team carried their momentum into the Hindson Cup, a tournament contested between the top two club teams from Alberta, and the third and fourth ranked teams from B.C. This gave them their first taste of varsity competition with matches against UBCO Heat, and the UBCO Barbarians, a team made up of first-year players and members of the Kelowna Crows club team. They were victorious in both games, winning 15-5 against the Heat, and 22-0 against the Barbarians, en route to dethroning the two-time defending champion Heat and taking top spot in the tournament.
After the fall, the club prepared for sevens rugby, a condensed version of fifteens rugby with seven players on the field and shorter matches. “The bulk of our training does go into sevens,” Recreation Services Representative Connor Milligan said. “From November to early March we’re doing fitness three days a week in the mornings, given that it’s one of the biggest parts of sevens.”
Those early morning fitness drills were in preparation for the National University Sevens Rugby Championship, which took place March 12-13. The U of A was pitted against their toughest competition of the season in the form of varsity teams from Ontario and B.C., including Brock, Queens, UBCO, and two teams each from the University of Victoria and UBC.
Though the tournament was dominated by the two entries from the Vikes and Thunderbirds, the U of A club still managed a positive result. The team finished sixth in the tournament, losing in the Plate Final to the University of Calgary. The teams from Vancouver and Victoria occupied the top four spots, but U of A team members were still happy with their final placing.
“It’s a good sign that two Alberta schools can come fifth and sixth in a national tournament,” Vaandering said.
The U of A rugby club has shown that it can overcome their financial and logistical handicaps and compete with teams that are funded by universities, and while Vaandering, Adibe, and Milligan acknowledged that gaining varsity status is something they hoped would happen, they also said that they were proud of their accomplishments during the season regardless. Even if they continue to just be a club, the future looks bright, and the successes of this year show the club won’t back down from any competition, varsity or otherwise.