Northeastern’s club men’s rugby team continues its long history of success.
By Justin Chen
While the varsity teams have been the center of attention in the Northeastern athletics scene, the rugby team has quietly been a staple of club sport success. Blowing out opponents on the regular, the Northeastern club rugby team has developed into one of the top collegiate programs.
Founded in the 1980s, the Northeastern rugby club started as an unaffiliated group of students bonding over their passion for the sport, choosing the “MadDog” as their mascot. After becoming an official university club in 1987, the Maddogs joined the New England Rugby Football Union College Division I (NERFU) and made the playoffs in their first year. After a stint in the East Coast Rugby Conference (ECRC), NU accepted an invitation to the 18-school Liberty Conference in 2017. The Maddogs most recently won the Liberty Championship in 2019, capping off an undefeated season.
The club also fields a sevens team in the spring, competing in a couple of invitational tournaments before a Liberty Conference sevens regular season.
Like any collegiate athlete, competition isn’t a Maddog’s only responsibility. “We have practices three times a week and film,” junior blindside flanker Coleman Jackson described. “But we have to try and make our own time for lift and conditioning.”
Furthermore, given the physicality of rugby, recovery is crucial. “Unfortunately, there’s little guidance on that,” Jackson explained. “We have to figure out our own plans, which sometimes holds us back.”
Jackson, who played high school rugby, said the biggest adjustment he had to make at the collegiate level was strategizing. “I used to just run as far as I could with the ball and drag kids since I was bigger,” he remembered, “but in college there’s more structure, detail, and discipline”
Conversely, senior fly half Matt Urrea and senior loose forward Alex Parciak both joined without prior rugby experience.
“I was looking for some competitive sport and intramurals weren’t doing it,” Urrea, who played football in high school, said. He remembered that he tried rugby his freshman year and fell in love with it quickly. “I grew up playing team sports and didn’t want to give it up.”
Because of the number of players joining without prior rugby experience, the team has a detailed onboarding process. “A football background gives you a leg up,” Urrea said, “but you also have little idea about rugby itself.”
The club has A and B teams that both play conference games in different divisions, and a development team for newcomers to learn and practice with.
“We want to let guys know that rugby is super fun,” Parciak, who joined with a football and wrestling background, said. “It might take a year or two [to adjust], and we want to make sure everyone stays engaged and comfortable.”
Despite the sport’s growing popularity in the Northeast, rugby and its strategies are still foreign to many newcomers. “In rugby, you still have schemes, sets, and plays,” Parciak explained, “but it’s a lot more free flowing, so when there are opportunities to stray away from the game plan to make something happen, it’s encouraged.”
He also noted that rugby doesn’t have the concrete roles and play-by-play game flow that football has. “It definitely took time to develop the IQ, feel, and trust in my decision making.”
The most important thing is safety. “Tackling in football and rugby is very different,” Urrea explained. “There’s an emphasis on protecting your head.” Upperclassmen take initiative to teach newcomers how to play the physical part of rugby safely.
That said, the Maddogs do not find their success from mere size and strength. Rather, they succeed by taking advantage of their quickness and executing game plans.
“We’re not always the biggest team but we compensate for that by being fundamentally sound,” Urrea said. “It’s a mental thing as much as physical.”
The team’s on-field dominance cannot be accomplished without the Maddogs’ strong bonds with one another. “A tight-knit community is a good foundation for success,” Jackson emphasized.
In normal seasons, the upperclassmen would host gatherings, team meals, and other events that would allow them to connect outside off the field.
Collegiate sports require traveling long distances for games, which is a major catalyst for team bonding. “It is so underrated,” Urrea noted. “Being packed in a van with 15 other guys unintentionally builds chemistry. There’s chirps being thrown around for hours … There’s never another time where we get to interact so closely.”
The Maddogs also travel to the West Coast in the spring to play in a couple tournaments to tune up for their sevens season. “There’s nothing like raiding a Chick-fil-A with 50 other guys after an away game,” Urrea concluded with a laugh.
The pandemic has rattled the sports community, but the team did their utmost to continue individual training and stay in contact with one another. Parciak praised the coaching staff for helping with communication and continuity.
“They scheduled Zoom calls every week throughout the whole pandemic to go over game planning, watch film, and stay in touch,” he recalled. “It always felt like the team was always there.”
Furthermore, Parciak said that he and his fellow upperclassmen “felt a sense of responsibility to help the team culture move forward” this past semester. “We had to reestablish team traditions and general culture since there weren’t as many guys that were active [before the pandemic].”
Especially when recruiting freshmen, establishing both a welcoming and winning environment is crucial in order to convince them to commit their time to the team.
“It’s important to have guys enjoy being around each other outside of rugby,” Urrea said. “You could love rugby but might not love it enough to spend ten hours a week; it’s about making sure guys want to be there for the game and for each other.”
Urrea observes this drive quite often, especially in the gym. Though there are rarely team lifts, “you can usually see five or six teammates in Marino on a random day,” he said.
Jackson agrees with this sentiment. “A lot of people joined at my high school just to say they played a sport; we lacked consistency and it was a rough ride,” he said, a sharp contrast with his experience at Northeastern. “It’s been hard to rebuild that same level of [pre-pandemic] camaraderie,” he added. “But it’s been getting back to where we were before the shutdown.”
During the club sports stoppage, some Maddogs ventured past collegiate rugby to improve their game. Jackson and Parciak both played and trained with the Mystic River Rugby Club, one of the top men’s programs in New England, during parts of the year.
Though he only played in a couple sevens games in the summer, Jackson found his time with Mystic River rewarding and said that “it’s great to have the opportunity to play at a higher level; it really helped me progress.”
“You’re not only playing against better competition, you’re also playing with better teammates,” Parciak observed. “It was intimidating, but after adjustment it became another opportunity to learn from some really good players and bring back some skills, drills, and perspectives.”
The Maddogs have built strong connections with local men’s clubs over the years and used them as resources to get rugby-centered training, lifting plans, and recovery – something Northeastern doesn’t offer.
“These opportunities are pretty important for guys on the team who want to see how far they can take rugby,” Jackson said.
Rugby is a staple in the lives of these Maddogs. “My experience at Northeastern is shaped very much by the rugby team,” Jackson said. “It’s one of the biggest reasons I enjoy going here.”
Urrea attributed his enjoyment of the club in part to the makeup of the team. “We’re so diverse because of how international rugby is,” he explained. “I have friends from vastly different experiences and backgrounds; that was one of the reasons why I chose Northeastern and I was able to take it a step further through rugby.”
The culture and support has also played a part in the experience. Despite the game’s hardships, Parciak credits his teammates and coaches for making his time as a Maddog enjoyable and memorable.
“It’s been everything I imagined and a million times more.”