SFU Rugby thrives despite not being recognized as a varsity team

How SFU’s biggest and longest lasting club continues to excel as a family

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Essentially all funding for SFU Rugby comes from alumni and players. (Photo courtesy of SFU Rugby)

SFU Rugby is the biggest club that SFU has to offer. It has been around for as long as the university has — 53 years and counting. The program’s rich history has seen the club tour around the world, establish themselves as a premier program in British Columbia, and develop players at the national level.

We interviewed head coaches Conan Cooper (men’s) and Shaun Fickling (women’s), as well as important players Tapiwa Samkange and Jessica Piot, to find out more about SFU Rugby.

Achievements:

The men’s team won the provincial championship as recently as 2015 , while the women’s team has a “fairly storied history of success in both prem and division one,” as per Fickling. However, a different type of achievement stood out most from the group of interviewees’ accomplishments: putting up the rugby posts in 2014.

“We put the rugby posts up on field two and that solidified our position as a club at SFU, ‘cause [SFU] can’t kick us out now — we’ve installed posts onto [their] field,” says Piot with some laughter. “That was a huge achievement because we had to fundraise and get so many donations for those. A lot of teamwork and executive work went into getting that, and giving us an official rugby field.”

The SFU Rugby Club “Family”:

It is this ability to band together that makes SFU Rugby so special. When asked if there was a family aspect to the club, all interviewees responded with a resounding yes.

SFU definitely has a family aspect. In fact there are over 15 marriages since 2000 from within the club. All rugby programs have a fellowship within the clubs – it’s part of the whole attraction to the sport and what keeps people in it […] There’s a lot of friendship and helping out one another that develops out of the way rugby is played. We rely on each other and just know everyone will be there in place for us when the play is set – a lot like a family,” said Cooper when interviewed via email.

SFU Rugby alumni continually give back to the program, allowing it to be what it is today. Due to the funds received through their alumni, SFU Rugby is able to offer bursaries and scholarships to some of its players.

Similarly to how the alumni give back to the program, however, SFU Rugby players also give back to their communities. Various players coach at high schools around the lower mainland. In the long run, this may also benefit the club as players who graduate from these high schools are able to put a face to SFU Rugby and are perhaps more likely to join SFU as a result.

Family is a familiar concept to rugby players and fans, and has been a huge part of the sport’s history. The home team is expected to feed the visiting team after a match, adding an element of camaraderie to the game that is unheard of in other sports. Given the competitive nature of the players, it can also lead to some interesting scenarios. “You might hate someone but you’re serving them food [after the game],” said Piot.

Being a club and not a varsity team:

While SFU Rugby excels with the resources that they have, a common theme that came up in the interviews was the difficulties of not being a varsity team.

One of the main struggles is player recruitment.

“I know quite a few women who attend SFU as a school, but they have a rugby club that’s closer to home, so they go to that one instead of our rugby club. But if we were varsity, they would travel miles for that opportunity,” said Piot.

The same thing goes for the men, as many of the clubs that they play against have “youth development programs that span two to six years,” as stated by Cooper.

The club also must rely on internal means to get funding for coaches, materials, and travel. “We rely heavily on fundraising and alumni to fund the program. SFU gives very little,” said Cooper. “All staff are funded by players/alumni, and we mainly rely on volunteers.”

“It’s a very different situation at other B.C. universities, other NCAA universities with rugby, and programs in eastern Canada. What would be a huge investment for us of just a couple tens of thousands would be considered very small contributions to the universities that get internal funding or who get more recognition from private supporters as varsity programs,” Cooper continued. “The programs that have some funding tend to attract even more funding because that base is there.”

Furthermore, “even just the couple perks you get for [playing for] a varsity team like early enrolment, potential for scholarships and stuff like that goes a long way in getting people to continue to come back and work harder, and improve themselves as players. Once your team is doing well it’s easy to recruit people,” said Samkange.

There are comparable universities in B.C. with varsity rugby programs, such as UBC and UVic. Since SFU competes in the NCAA, however, becoming a varsity team would require travelling to the United States often. While this is a goal for the club eventually, it would take a lot of commitment from the university in order to make it a reality.

Balancing rugby with student life:

Even though it is a club, the players and coaches still have comparable schedules to varsity players and staff. Both teams practice Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7–9 p.m, and have games nearly every weekend from September to April, apart from a winter break.  

Balancing rugby with student life becomes an important part of the players’ and coaches’ lives, but according to Piot, Fickling, and Samkange, it is very doable.

Piot, who did the Professional Development Program (PDP) and graduated in economics said, “A lot of students who went through the PDP told me to essentially drop anything that I like because the program is too intensive to do any of that stuff, but I kept up with rugby. I just find that you have to learn to see what your exams and midterms and assignments will be in the future, and start those early in order to balance them with rugby.”

Samkange added on to this, saying, “I think the balance comes with what you make as a priority. You’ll find time if you do your work first, or as one of your first priorities – [rugby] won’t be a problem with managing everything. But if you’re trying to have too many things going on at once it’s easy to blame rugby for why something is going wrong.”

Rugby can also be seen as a physical outlet, as discussed by Fickling, a full-time PHD student at SFU. “For me [rugby] helps me manage stress. I know rugby is the same every week, it doesn’t change, it’s always exciting, it’s always fun, and it’s a great break from work.”

Goals for the upcoming season:

While what SFU Rugby has been able to achieve up to date is impressive, both head coaches are focused on the upcoming season.

“This year we’re looking forward to returning to the Western University Championships – the Hindson Cup – and touring Washington and Oregon in the spring. In performance our team goals are to make top three in Westerns, and finish in the top half of the league table. For us that will be a great achievement for a second year in the program and being a development club.

“From a coach perspective, I want to see players and other coaches maintain what we built last season and put that forward to gaining new understanding and tactical advantage this year. We’re already really showing a carry-over from last season [which] bodes well for our game in 2019,” said Cooper when discussing the men’s team’s goals.

As per the women’s side, this is what Fickling had to say:

“Our biggest goal is obviously to compete and win the league [ . . . ] We’re in division A now so we’re playing against the best of the best now. We’ve had a couple years of development, trying to build up a squad, and we’re at the point now where we’re looking to push on and want to compete and want to start challenging for the trophy ultimately, but as always our ongoing focus is development and recruiting players.”

How to get involved:

All interviewees were adamant that SFU Rugby has something to offer everybody, no matter how big or small you are, how fast you are, or how new to the game you are. If you want to get involved, the best way to do so is to show up at a practice on Tuesday or Thursday at 7 p.m, or to contact SFU Rugby at their email: rugby@sfu.ca.

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