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Better Know a Louisville Sport: Rugby

The “toughest” sport at the University of Louisville is coming off a history-making championship season and continuing to grow.

We continue our series of getting to know some of the “other” sports programs at the University of Louisville with a closer look at the Cardinal rugby squad.

U of L rugby head coach Emil Walton was kind enough to answer some questions.

Card Chronicle: Briefly, what’s the background of rugby at the University of Louisville? How long has the program been around and how successful has it been?

There was a Louisville rugby program back in the 1980s, but honestly we do not have too much info on that era. Ten years ago the program was restarted by fellow South-African and Hall of Fame inductee, Andre Faul, and Mr. Bobby Ruth. For the past seven years, the program was trying to find its feet, went through about 2-3 coaches and was considered a social team more than the competitive program we are now.

The 2014-15 season was definitely the low point in the program’s history. U of L was bottom of the log in the conference with an 0-6 record. Things had to change and I was approached to take over the role of head coach in the fall of 2016. I implemented a lot of tactics, preparation, and a different team culture.

The dynamic changed significantly from being a social team to now being a top contender and powerhouse in our conference.

CC: This isn’t an officially sanctioned university sport, so what is the technical term for the program’s status? Is the team in a conference? How is the schedule formed?

We are not a sanctioned university sport and are still considered a club sport. Regardless of that status, we run a program that closely mimics some of the best varsity programs in the nation. With the significant growth of the sport in the United States and the fact that it’s now part of the Olympics, we are working towards being recognized as a varsity sport.

We are currently playing on the D1-AA Mid-American Conference (MAC) and we are the only non-traditional MAC team in this league. We are a seven team conference that consists of Louisville, University of Cincinnati, Miami-Ohio University, Ohio University, the University of Dayton, Western Michigan University and Bowling Green State. Five of those teams are currently ranked in the top 25 nationwide, including Louisville. We play three home and three away games with a playoff weekend to determine the next round to Nationals.

CC: Is their a recruitment process for players, or is the team formed by an open tryout?

We do have open try-outs and walk-ons are always welcomed by the team. We have been heavily recruiting all over the United States, with players from Maryland, Texas and Nebraska all coming to play here at U of L.

This past season alone we had 13 recruits joining us from top high school programs across the country. The rugby and hockey clubs are the only two club sports actively recruiting and bringing players to the university to represent Louisville on a national level.

CC: In your estimation, what’s been the most impressive accomplishment for Louisville rugby to date?

In the past 2.5 years, the team had made history several times. We went from unranked to finishing last season No. 12 in the nation for D1-AA, and top 50 for all programs nationwide. There are about 500 college teams in the U.S., so this is a huge step up for us.

We have two players who have been drafted straight out of our program to play professional rugby in the newly established professional league called Major League Rugby. The most significant achievement is winning the MAC championship this past Spring and having a bid to go to nationals in Colorado.

This was the first time in the 30 years existence that and non-traditional MAC team has won the conference. What we have done over a span of two years takes most programs anything from 4-10 years to achieve. Our growth has been phenomenal.

CC: Where does the team play its games and how can fans get more involved?

We currently play our games on Frisbee Field in Cherokee Park, sharing the field with the Louisville Men’s Rugby Club. Fans can find us on Facebook in regards to game times and other info about the team.

CC: How’s the 2018-19 squad looking?

We just finished our two presseason games and we are now preparing for our first conference game against Miami-Ohio. The team is looking good. We had a few injuries, but nothing too major, and the new players are stepping up and taking over some of the leadership roles. Preseason is usually tough, because we have to iron out some kinks, but we will have them firing on all cylinders very soon and hopefully take it all the way to nationals.