When Hudson Lee ’22 was a first-year, the men’s rugby team was crushed by Dartmouth, losing 44-0. “I still remember the score,” he said.
But just three years later, on November 6, 2021, the team concluded its season by notching a 15-13 victory against Dartmouth to win the Ivy League championships. This was the first Ivy League title for Brown Rugby in 25 years, and the first time Dartmouth did not win the title since 2007.
“It felt bigger than any one of us,” Lee said. “It felt like a win for the University (and) the program. … It was something else.” In a video on the team’s Instagram page, players rush the field in excitement after the final whistle.
Head Coach David Laflamme said the rugby team had been building to this moment for years, steadily expanding its program to establish its team as a national contender. He believes the team still has higher places to reach for.
No longer the underdog
Only three people have coached Brown’s men’s rugby team in the 62-year history of the program. Jay Fluck ’65 has been with the team as a volunteer since 1980, with Laflamme joining as an assistant coach in 1997. At the time Laflamme joined the team, both of them held full-time jobs outside of coaching.
Although the Bears won the Ivy League title in 1996, Fluck said the team had lost its competitive edge by the end of the 20th century. Soon later, Dartmouth became the first men’s rugby team in the Ivy League to instate a full-time coach, which drastically improved the Big Green’s team and established the school’s long-standing dominance over the rest of the Ivy League, according to Laflamme.
Things began to change for Brown in 2008 when Fluck transitioned out of coaching to become program director. Laflamme became head coach, giving both of them more bandwidth to “divide and conquer,” Laflamme said.
“Because we weren’t wearing too many hats, we could focus on what we needed to do. It was at that point that we started to climb the ladder a little bit,” Laflamme said. The team earned a tie against Dartmouth in a 2012 matchup.
But Laflamme says the team’s true potential began to materialize when it raised the funds to pay for him to become a full-time coach in 2015. Since then, he has been able to expand recruiting efforts to more than 4000 rugby programs in 75 countries. Now, the club has two assistant coaches, a coaching consultant, strength and conditioning staff and medical staff.
“Dave (Laflamme) particularly has made a point to reach out to secondary schools around the world, in search of good rugby players who can meet the academic standards. And his success in recruiting some of these players has been phenomenal,” said Bob Far ’67, a team alum.
Laflamme and Fluck said other schools are beginning to catch on to Brown’s recruiting tactics and coaching decisions. Harvard is currently searching for a full-time coach.
“I think we snuck up on them a little bit,” Laflamme said.
Captain Jon Kim ’22 said that the team has also implemented more rigorous fitness training this year, which has allowed it to better execute plays. He added that the culture on the team has grown more devoted to training since its players were sent home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Additionally, in the past year, team alums have formed a board of advisors to support players with career advice, networking and financial support, according to Dianna Zeller P’23, a member of the board and parent of rugby player Will Zeller ’23.
While Brown has made gains in skill over the past few years, Fluck said some other Ivy League teams have had a slump in talent, creating a rift within the league. This year, Brown overwhelmed Columbia 74-0 and dominated Penn 97-0.
After this season, Laflamme says “the biggest takeaway is the confidence that we know we can compete not just at the Ivy League (level) but on the national scene.”
The perks and pains of club status
Like all men’s rugby teams in the Ivy League, Brown’s team is at the club level, not varsity. Laflamme said their club status can make it more difficult to compete with varsity teams. The team is fully self-funded, with alumni donations covering the costs of coaching, equipment, travel and offices. After struggling to find open field space, the team raised almost half of the cash needed for Brown to build a $2 million rugby field in 2004.
Coaches are also not officially allowed to recruit members, though admissions officers accept recommendations for academically strong students who could make a substantial contribution to the rugby program, according to Laflamme.
Still, Laflamme says he’s grateful for the team’s club status, which has allowed it to welcome players at all levels of experience and commitment. He added that the increased flexibility also allows players to commit to their academics.
A promising future
The men’s rugby team will soon begin training for the spring season in a modified version of the sport in which seven rather than fifteen players per team are on the field at once. Zeller said the team is aiming higher for next season and particularly next year.
“We’re hoping to really make a run at the (Division I) playoffs and … show something on the national stage,” Zeller said.
Laflamme said a large portion of the current players are still underclassmen. “I anticipate we’re gonna be as strong, if not stronger going into next year,” he said.
Players that The Herald spoke with all emphasized the companionship that Brown’s rugby team has given them, regardless of results. “The commitment and the camaraderie that I’ve seen is the best I’ve ever been a part of,” Kim said, adding that “it wasn’t just the starters” who achieved the championship win — “It was the entire team.”
Far, who has been following the team since he graduated more than five decades ago, said he’s excited to see where the future takes it.
“When you’re watching these games, you aren’t more than 50 feet from the blood, sweat and tears of the players,” he said. “You can see their pain and their joy and their effort. It’s really a terrific spectator sport.”