Rice’s club rugby team celebrated an improbable 50th anniversary last year.
Stewart Morris Jr. ’71, founder of the Rice Rugby Football Club, pulls out a photo of himself and slides it across a conference room table in Herman Brown Hall. “I was in my mid-60s then,” he says, motioning to the image of him diving, head buried into the hip of a man barely half his age. “But I made that tackle.”
“Or did he fall down because he knew you were the one making it?” quips Ed Brown, a former Rice rugby coach, prompting an immediate retort. “No! I took him down!” says Morris, as the group laughs.
For more than an hour, the men in the room — six in total, ranging from faculty sponsors to rugby alumni association presidents to former players and coaches — continue to swap stories. They’ve gathered on campus to reminisce about Rice rugby, and then maybe grab a beer at Valhalla to reminisce some more. Together they represent 50 years of rugby at Rice, which Morris, now 70 years old, founded on campus in 1968.
“I never left it,” he says. “Rugby is one of those things that gets in your blood and stays close to your heart.”
It’s not exactly common for a university club team to amass a tradition this long or this rich, especially not for a sport as niche as rugby. Historically popular in countries like New Zealand, Australia and England, rugby is only now gaining popularity in the United States. But Morris and Rice were ahead of the curve when they founded what was, at the time, just the second college rugby club in the state of Texas. Since then, the Owls have won nine Texas State Championships, including a top 10 finish in the country in 2000.
“Rugby, especially at Rice, is a fraternity. It’s like their family away from home,” says Brown, who coached the team from 1996 to 2007. “These kids get so close that they have relationships for the rest of their lives. It’s more than a game. It’s a fraternity, a way of life.”
“It’s a brotherhood and, now, a sisterhood,” adds Jabus Roberts, who is rugby’s faculty associate, resident scholar, and a professor of physics and astronomy at Rice.
The reason for such sustained success and camaraderie? “That’s easy,” says McMurtry senior and current team captain Lane Toungate. “It’s the alumni, no doubt.” Thanks to alumni support, the team sends two players to New Zealand each year and the whole team to Ireland every four years. They have also secured a lauded group of coaches over the years, including current head coach Mario Botha from South Africa. Morris throws a barbecue each year for alumni and current players, and then there’s the annual alumni game, which gives “originals” like Morris a chance to keep tackling well after graduation.
“There’s a thread of toughness that permeates through everyone on the field,” says Morris. “You may lose blood, lose skin, but that’s a small price to pay compared to the exhilaration of team play.”