Founding and Early Years
The Notre Dame Rugby Football Club was founded in 1961 as the one of the first collegiate rugby clubs in the Midwest. In the spring of 1962, Notre Dame narrowly defeated Wisconsin in the first club rugby match played in the Midwest.
In 1963, the Notre Dame Rugby Football Club was officially founded as a club sport. The team was founded by Bob Mier, a student who participated in the Wisconsin game the previous spring. With supervising faculty member and acting head coach Kenneth Featherstone, the team formed and competed in the Midwest Conference.
In April of 1968, the Fighting Irish traveled to Ireland for several exhibition matches. They went 2-3 against Irish teams, including losses to the Dublin League Champions, Navan, and runner-up, Delvin. Notre Dame was also defeated by University College Cork but gained victories over the Limerick Rovers and Thurles. The Fighting Irish traveled to Ireland again in March of 1974. On this trip, Notre Dame went 2-2, losing to Tralee and again to University College Cork while defeating another Limerick team, the Bohemians, and University College Dublin.
After suffering a losing record their first season, the A-side went on to have 3 winning seasons obtaining a 53-12 record. Likewise, the B-side also dominated its opposition obtaining a 40-1 record that included a 33 game winning streak, which was finally ended by current Super League side, the Chicago Lions.
During the 1965-1966 year, the Fighting Irish won the Commonwealth Cup, Nassau Invitational, Midwest Tournament, Irish Challenge Cup, and the All-College Tournament. These wins resulted in the Fighting Irish being name Collegiate Rugby National Champions by Sports Illustrated. After this season, Notre Dame offered the rugby team the chance to become a varsity sport, but this was turned down via players' vote. Notre Dame was even named a "national rugby power" by the Washington Post.
In the fall season of 1972, the Fighting Irish defeated long time rival, the Chicago Lions 15-12, upsetting the 1972 Midwest Champs. The game has been considered one of the most brutal matches in recent years. One player was knocked unconscious in the first minute of play with two others being removed at half-time, one with a broken jaw and the other with a broken leg. An English official said afterwards, "I've seen teams play in Holland, England, and on the continent (Europe), but I've never seen a team hit like Notre Dame did that day. "
The next week, Notre Dame won a hard fought victory over rival and defending National Champions Palmer College of Chiropractic16-15. The Irish finished the fall season at 11-2. During the spring season of 1973, Notre Dame beat rival Ohio State and reclaimed the Silver Cup, a trophy passed to the victor of that game. The Fighting Irish finished the spring at 12-1, winning the Midwest Championship over the Chicago Lions, but losing the National Championship to repeat champions, Palmer. The 1975 B-Team went undefeated included a 3-0 victory over the Lions in their final game on Mark Keown's 30 yard penalty kick from the right sideline.
From 1987 to 1992 the Irish returned to regional prowess, under the coaching of Art Maerlender. The team re-joined CARFU and made it to the Midwest final round in 1990 and 1991. The late Col. John Stephens was the long-serving faculty advisor who died in 1996. Incidents the next year invoked the "double-secret probation," that served to eliminate the club from campus until 2007.
The University placed the rugby club on probation twice in the '80s as a result of bad behavior. The combined weight of these events and inexcusable misconduct during the '94 spring season ultimately led to the club's disbandment on August 3, 1995.
South Bend Old Boys
Tom McGinty and Dave Bishop deserve credit for their efforts to start a club team in the fall of 2000, eventually dubbed the South Bend Old Boys RFC, after playing for the South Bend blues the previous year and longing for a University-affiliated team
On the ND team of '94, "That team definitely deserved to be disbanded," said McGinty. "Rugby had a bad reputation here, but those players no longer attend this University. I just wanted to bring rugby back to Notre Dame and share this great sport with everyone else."
During the spring of 2000, the trio worked extremely hard to create a rugby team at Notre Dame.
"I talked to RecSports about maybe starting a club team here. We made a concerted effort into bringing rugby back to this campus," said Bishop. "We started building alumni support by writing letters and e-mail to former players. We sent a petition around campus and got 1,400 student signatures. The next fall, we drafted an 11-page constitution and presented a proposal to Student Affairs and Student Activities."
Slowly but surely, the trio's hard work began to pay off. Although the team was not recognized by Student Activities as an officially sponsored team sport at Notre Dame, Student Affairs did choose to recognize rugby as a club sport.
The ruling essentially meant that the trio was allowed to form a team that could practice on campus, but could not play official games on campus. Furthermore, the team was not allowed to have any official affiliation with the University. Thus, in the fall of 2000, the trio formed the South Bend Old Boys Rugby Club.
Out Side Irish
The OIRFC was a rugby club unaffiliated with the University of Notre Dame but was comprised of Notre Dame and Indiana University of South Bend students. The club was founded in the fall of 2004 by junior, Mike Schmitt and sophomore, Don Greiwe as an attempt to take the team in a more serious direction. In their first season the Out Side Irish only managed to schedule a few games due to low numbers and accessibility. They practiced only once per week and barely could scrap together fifteen live bodies to play matches, however they were able to recruit a strong freshman class and the next spring managed a record of 3-4.
At the end of this season John Gallagher, Chris Harrington, and Christopher Liedl decided to put together a formal application for club status with the University. After drafting a club constitution and with the support of president Don Greiwe and vice president Brian Fallon the club filed for official recognition. Practicing three times a week and posting a record of 9-1-1 the rugby club made a strong case for itself. With the support of numerous alumni and donors and after an application period of over six months the team was finally recognized in May of 2007 and became the Notre Dame Rugby Football Club.
On May 18, 2007, 12 years after being banished, the University officially reinstated the Notre Dame Rugby Football Club. As an official club, the NDRFC's stated goals are to field a rugby team representing the University of Notre Dame, to compete with other club teams while abiding by the rules of the University of Notre Dame, USA Rugby, and the International Rugby Board (IRB), and to promote the physical education, mental and social wellbeing, and sportsmanship of members of the club through participation in and the playing of this internationally recognized sport.
Following their reinstitution, the club rose rapidly through the Midwest RFU ranks after hiring Coach Sean O'Leary. O'Leary transferred from Northeastern University and acts as coach of the USA U17 national team. In the fall of their first season the Irish finished 8-1-1 against Division II competition sparking a move up to Division I in the spring and an inclusion in the Eastern Division of the Midwestern Division I league.
College Premier League
The Irish continued their successful ascent into the ranks of college rugby's elite programs over the next few years. Although they struggled in their first season in Division I, under the supervision of Coach O'Leary and a strong Class of 2011, the program consistently improved, becoming a Midwest powerhouse. USA Rugby recognized this when, in 2010, they invited the NDRFC to join its inaugural College Premier Division, composed of the top 31 teams in American college rugby. As a young program, the Irish were expected to struggle in the league, yet turned heads by compiling a 3-3 record and recording wins against programs such as LSU, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. In both 2010 and 2011, forward Nick Civetta was named an All-American, while scrumhalf Andy O’Connor consistently impressed and was awarded a position on the Midwest Select Side both years. Prop John Lalor was also named to the side in 2011.
Collegiate Rugby 7s Championship
Due to the admittance of rugby 7s to the 2016 Olympics, 7’s began to grow quickly in the US. In June of 2010, NBC broadcast the inaugural Collegiate Championship Invitational (later the Collegiate Rugby Championship). Again, Notre Dame was recognized as a top-flight program, both in its rugby talent and marketability. A young team in 2010, the 2011 Irish CRC had not lost a single player to graduation. Their cohesion showed as they battled through the tournament’s “Group of Death,” competing against 2010 champion Utah and eventual 2011 champion Dartmouth, as well as Catholic rival Boston College. Two last minute tries in the Utah and Dartmouth games relegated the Irish to the Challenger Bracket, yet they persevered and beat Midwest rival Ohio State 28-7 in the quarterfinals and a strong Navy side 12-10 in the semifinals to set up a match with LSU in the Challenger Finals. The side Notre Dame opened their CPD season against with a hard-fought win were not to be denied this time, however, and pulled out a strong win over the Irish. Nevertheless, the tournament was a success for Coach O’Leary’s first class, showing just how far the program had progressed in a few short years—from nonexistent to nationally televised. The Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby 7s Championship now airs on ESPN.
Photo credit: Dome yearbook 1965, page 119.