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Culture and Coaching Help Service Academies Overcome Challenges

June 14, 2019

As is tradition, the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship featured teams from both the United States Naval Academy and the United States Military Academy at West Point. The Navy men ended with their best ever finish of third/fourth among 24 teams while the Army women’s team finished as the Women’s division’s runner-up, falling short to Lindenwood in the final. The Army women had their best showing at the CRCs since winning it back in 2011.

With the success that these teams had, they took a much different road then some of the other more traditional colleges. Service Academies face unique challenges. Academically, it is very tough to get into these institutions and recruiting players can prove to be difficult.

Rugby at the Naval Academy is a club sport, meaning they do not have designated slots for rugby recruitment. Currently, the Naval Academy has no players on the roster with rugby experience prior to attending the Academy. Coach Gavin Hickie says getting the players up to speed quickly is a difficult task.

“We have to teach basic skills and general rugby concepts while developing these student-athletes in a high performance environment, said Hickie. “Thankfully, they have the willingness to learn and compete that all coaches love to see. It makes it easier to coach them.”

While the West Point women have the luxury of being a varsity sport and the ability to recruit rugby players, a life of service is not meant for everybody. Only twenty percent of West Point Cadets are female and many people are unware that West Point has a women’s rugby program.

“It takes a certain courage for women to make the choice to join the military or play rugby. Luckily enough, we have a group of women who have stepped up to meet both of those challenges and are constantly striving to be the best in both aspects,” said Army coach Bill Le Clerc. “We loved playing in the Penn Mutual CRC because it helps to expose our girls to a competitive rugby atmosphere and get our name out there as a top-tier team.”

2019 CRC MVP Sam Sullivan from Army

Despite these challenges, why are these teams able to compete with the rugby giants on the college scene?

With top flight coaches, filled with a bevy of experience and a great knowledge of the game, these academies are in good hands.

Gavin Hickie, came to the Naval Academy after five seasons at Dartmouth College where he won Ivy League 15s and 7s championships each year he was there. A native Irishman, he played professional rugby for over ten years for Leinster, London Irish, Worcester, and the Leicester Tigers.

“The most important thing for anybody new to anything is education. If you want to be good at something you have to learn it first,” said Hickie.

Bill LeClerc, has been at the Military Academy since 2011 and became the head coach in 2014. LeClerc, originally from New Zealand, has international experience as a coach and player, playing for Northland Provincial, Merloma in Canada, and for the Athletic Club Boulogne Billancourt in Paris. In 2017, Assistant Coach Steve Lewis, was brought in by his former teammate, LeClerc. Lewis, from Scotland, is another well respected coach in the US. He is a World Rugby Level 3 coach and won the 2014 USA Rugby Coach of the Year. He is a former player of the Glasgow Provincial team and Venerable West of Scotland Rugby Club. LeClerc and Lewis have helped bring new levels of success to the program in their time together.

Fitness is another key component in rugby.  The students that attend these universities do long training programs, outside of their respective sport, that consist of a significant amount of strength and conditioning work.

LeClerc explained, “ I believe our players stand apart from other teams because of the multitude of physical and military challenges that they face in the Army. As they overcome these challenges, they build a strong bond that translates to success on the rugby field.”

Although sometimes these teams can be short on experience, the Academies make up for it with a talented student body with a strong prerequisite for the skills and values of the game. The characteristics of successful rugby players—selflessness, sacrifice and teamwork— are inherent in those that attend the Service Academies.

 “When you have the raw material like the Midshipmen, you have a very special group of people. People that sacrifice themselves for others. People that want to be challenged every day. And with that, you can get to where you want to go which is a National Championship in 15s and 7s,” Hickie said of his players.

Although both of these teams routinely face challenges when it comes to roster numbers or rugby experience, they are still able to compete with the best teams in the country year in and year out in both 15s and 7s. It takes a certain kind of student to succeed at these Academies, someone who can commit to an academic service institute like a Navy or an Army, and these students are all in rugby.

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