Syracuse University Magazine

In the Scrum

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The Hammerheads lock up in a scrum with Queen's University in a 2015 preseason match in Kingston, Ontario.

The SU Rugby Football Club offers a tough, demanding sport with an international flair for newcomers and experienced players alike

By Scott Pitoniak

Nathan Bombrys ’97 dreamed about becoming Syracuse University’s version of Rudy Ruettiger, the pint-sized Notre Dame football player who inspired one of the most popular sports movies of all-time. But on the day Bombrys was going to sign up to try out for the Orange football team, a fellow student convinced the freshman from Mendon, Michigan, to give rugby a shot instead. “I’d never even seen a rugby ball in my life, but my curiosity was piqued,” Bombrys says. “I quickly discovered that rugby had the physicality of football along with a camaraderie I had never experienced before in the numerous American sports I played growing up. I tried it and fell head over heels in love with it.”

Nearly two decades later, Bombrys remains thrilled he chose rugby over becoming the next Rudy. Today, the man with a bachelor’s degree in film from the College of Visual and Performing Arts serves as the managing director of the Glasgow Warriors, a professional Scottish team that recently won a European championship. “Nathan is one of our many success stories,” says Bob Wilson G’72, who played a major role in getting the Syracuse University Rugby Football Club off the ground 47 years ago and who has coached the team since 1983. “There are SU rugby players who have gone on to play for and run teams throughout the United States and the world.”

Peter BaigentThe club, whose official nickname is Hammerheads, was born out of a bar-side meeting between two graduate students—John Mauro G’73 and Peter Baigent G’98 (pictured at left)—in 1969. Using his connections as a resident advisor in Dellplain Hall, Baigent was able to round up enough interested students, and hastily arranged a schedule against a couple of upstate colleges.

After a winless inaugural season, Baigent recruited Wilson, an old high school rugby opponent from England, to join them, and the team improved markedly. “It was challenging at first because most of the participants had never played the sport before, so there was a lot of learning on the fly,” Wilson says. “But rugby’s always been an inclusive game, and we welcomed the charge of teaching it to others. And it’s still somewhat that way, though high school rugby is gaining popularity in the States. Of the 60 or so players on our current roster, roughly two-thirds of them never played before.”

After graduating and spending a year teaching physical education at a suburban Syracuse high school, Wilson returned to England for about a decade before coming back to his alma mater, where he serves as director of student support services. The Hammerheads have enjoyed considerable success under Wilson’s tutelage, winning several New York State championships and advancing to the Sweet 16 of the national collegiate rugby tournament in 2010. Last fall, they reached the American College Rugby Bowl Championships in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they lost to Notre Dame. SU plays roughly 12 matches in the fall and an additional eight in the spring.

Every other year, the Hammerheads travel internationally for matches. They’ve played in England, Scotland, Argentina, and Spain, and are planning a 2017 trip to Ireland. Perhaps their most memorable trip was to Lockerbie, Scotland, where they visited memorials dedicated to the 258 people killed when a terrorist bomb detonated on Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. Among the dead were 35 SU students returning home from a semester abroad. “We try to provide a varied educational experience that goes beyond rugby,” Wilson says. “That trip to Lockerbie obviously was very powerful, something our players will never forget.”

As one of 53 official club sports on campus (there’s also the well-established SU Women’s Rugby Football Club), the Hammerheads receive financial support from the University. But it’s usually only enough to cover league dues, tournament entry fees, and referees’ salaries. To offset some of the other expenses, Wilson set up a Go Fund Me account, and the club has received support from SU rugby alumni.

The coach is quick to point out that, while winning titles is important, it’s not the primary motivation of rugby players. “People play because they love the physicality and the free-flowing nature,” Wilson says of the game, which features 15 players per side and allows the oval ball to be carried, kicked, or passed on a rectangular field 110 yards long. “It’s not a coach-dominated sport like so many American sports. In one of the many rugby songs there’s a verse that kind of sums it up. It goes, ‘We don’t play for adoration. We don’t play for victory. We just play for recreation, mighty, mighty men are we.’”

The post-match partying among players from both squads is an appealing and unique aspect of the sport. “I don’t know of any other sport where that happens,’’ says Angus Bishop ’17, a sport management major from Sydney, Australia, who has captained the Hammerheads since the second semester of his freshman year. “The match ends and you share food and drink and socialize with a bunch of guys who just tried to tackle you and break you in half. There is no lingering malice.”

Wilson says the mutual respect rugby players have for each other is reflected in a quote from Shakespeare in which King Henry V says: “For he today who sheds his blood with me shall forever be my brother.” “It really is a close-knit fraternity, and a worldwide fraternity,’’ Wilson says. “You can go anywhere in the world and you’ll be embraced by other rugby players.”  

There’s long been an international feel to SU rugby. “When I played, we had a Korean scrum-half and a Kenyan scrum-half and a guy from London who became my best friend,” Bombrys says. “For a kid from a small town in the Midwest, SU rugby opened up a world for me that I might not otherwise have seen. We had guys from my team who wound up going all over the globe. One of them became a lawyer in Japan. We had a guy play in Indonesia. Others played in South Africa, China, Australia, and New Zealand. It was a veritable United Nations.”

Despite being an ocean away, Bombrys continues to contribute to SU’s rugby legacy. He recently established an internship program with the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics. Bishop spent last summer working in the Warriors front office. “It was great hands-on experience,” he says. “I learned so much about what goes into running a professional sports franchise, and I was able to apply some of the things I learned at SU. The opportunity would not have come about were it not for Syracuse rugby.” 

Scott Pitoniak ’77 is an award-winning columnist and author who lives in Rochester, New York.



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The club celebrates after winning the 2015 Empire Rugby Conference Championship with a 32-28 victory over host Stony Brook in November.

Photos courtesy of SU Rugby Football Club