When asked which sport the Aggies excel in the most, you may think of cycling, water polo or golf.
The UC Davis men’s club rugby team has a proven track record of its own, having excelled against some of the top programs in the nation on a regular basis.
“We are ranked 17th in the country,” said rugby coach Andy Malpass. “We’ve been ranked in the top 25 for four years in a row, not to mention that we play in the nation’s toughest league that holds two top 10 programs in Cal and Saint Mary’s.”
The Aggie rugby club, which is not one of UC Davis’ 27 intercollegiate teams, has been in existence since 1950 and has earned its fair share of accolades.
They were ranked third in the country in 1997. Over a two-year span from 1996-1997, they produced more All-Americans (11) than any other school in the nation.
Malpass, the club’s third-year head coach who hails from the United Kingdom, has led the rugby club back to national prominence.
His team was a five-point overtime loss away from making the Sweet 16 a year ago, and has returned all but a handful of starters including team president Tyler Harrison.
“Tyler is good enough to be on the national team,” Malpass said. “One of our main goals is to produce a high-level of players. Tyler could be an All-American.”
The fact that the rugby team is ranked 17th in the nation is impressive. It becomes exponentially more impressive when considering the resources the team has to work with.
“The university gives us a small chunk of the money we need,” Malpass said. “They give us a field, but we have to pay out of pocket to have it marked up before games. The majority of travel and equipment money is raised by the team. They work football games and we hold an annual dinner where we have raffles. They even write letters to alumni asking for help. I can’t tell you how hard these kids work.”
Malpass isn’t the only man on staff who sees that the team is at a disadvantage.
“Rugby is treated the same as it was 20 years ago,” said assistant coach Andrew Acosta. “We need to embrace a more collegiate atmosphere to get the university to pay attention. The Olympics added rugby for the 2016 games, which will help increase our exposure. This team is high quality right now. It’s important for them to be taken seriously.”
That’s because the team takes itself so seriously. The Aggies hold five or six days of full practice per week in addition to a rigorous weight training program. Players have to balance that time commitment with a full academic workload.
The club believes that with additional resources and recognition, they could challenge the top teams in the nation.
“I’d love to see UC Davis with an ICA rugby program,” Malpass said. “This may be aided by the Olympics, but the fact is a school like Berkeley has a huge advantage because they draw players from all over the world.
“If UC Davis had an exchange program, we could get players from New Zealand, the UK and many other countries where rugby is a cultural game. I get e-mails every year from kids who want to play rugby for UC Davis, but I have to turn them away.”
Despite the many impediments both on and off the field, the Aggies stay goal-oriented.
“All of those things are just obstacles,” Harrison said. “Our goal is to win league, which is tough with Saint Mary’s and Cal in our way. If we win league, we pretty much get into the Sweet 16. That has been our goal.”
While the Aggies may not be the most skilled squad in the country, they have impressive team chemistry.
“This is the greatest group of guys you’ll ever meet,” said first-team captain Angus Brown. “We’re going to be lifelong friends.”
As a result, Malpass and the rest of the Aggie coaching staff couldn’t be prouder.
“I love all of the guys I coach,” Malpass said. “I couldn’t ask for better kids.”
The Aggies take on Chico State this Saturday at 1 p.m. on Russell Field. For a complete schedule, ucdavisrugby.com.
MARK LING can be reached at email@example.com.