The men’s rugby team — the most successful team on campus — held its walk-on tryouts last week, attracting the attention of about 70 students.
There was a certain attitude emanating from the the gates at Helaman Field that can be summed up best by the team issued t-shirts that read “Championships, Not Scholarships.” The young players trying out were focusing on tying cleats and stretching hamstrings until the blow of a whistle signaled the start of the session. Everyone then snapped to attention.
Ruby tryouts are not for the faint of heart. Numerous players were making their way to the training table within minutes of the scrimmage starting. Some with bloody noses, some with cuts under their eyes and others holding wrists or shoulders. But they all had one thing in common: they all returned to the field.
That sort of drive is exactly what the coaching staff is looking for.
“You need heart,” assistant coach Wayne Tarawhiti said. “We’ll take the heart, and we’ll take the size. We can teach the skill, and that’s the fun part. You need to be tough. That’s why wrestlers do so well here – they like that close-quarters combat.”
Close-quarters combat seems to be a fitting description of the sport. The interactions between each player seem less like an athletic competition and more like a tiny battle that wages until one team crosses the ball over their opponent’s try-line.
Occasionally the practice came to a stop so the players could be coached up on the situation. But it can be difficult to do much coaching due to the short amount of time (the tryouts are about four hours over two days). Tarawhiti said he wasn’t worried When asked if that was enough time to evaluate the talent and determine who will make the team.
“We pretty much know. We don’t get into too much technique stuff here. But some guys stand out. They want it,” Tarawhiti said.
Head coach David Smyth says that in some ways it’s that level of passion that allows the BYU rugby team to remain so successful despite facing large turnover rates each offseason.
“We tell our guys that the building blocks for success are to learn, then teach, then learn again. So that’s why the current players are here,” Smyth said.
Those already on the team constantly work with those trying out throughout the tryout session. They know how crucial it is to provide help, especially when half the team is being replaced.
“In a typical year, we replace around 20 to 50 percent of the team,” Smyth said. “This year we’re replacing about 50 percent of our team. So we look for athletes that we can teach, we look for guys that follow instructions, and guys that are physical. With those things, they can be successful.”
Smyth knows what it takes to succeed in Division 1-AA rugby. He’s led the Cougars to four straight National Championships (five overall), and a 61-3 record over the past four seasons. He knows that his position isn’t an easy one, especially without the presence of scholarships, but he believes the key to performing well is a sharp focus.
“Sure, (scholarships) would help some of these guys out,” Smyth said. “We don’t expect much. You work hard, you show up, and whatever you get is a bonus. But we do expect to win. We don’t get the frills, we don’t get the money, so we don’t worry about it. We only worry about the things that are in our control, the things on the field.”
The Cougars’ success becomes even more impressive when considering the lack of experience. Only about half of those who try out have played rugby according to student assistant coach Ishmael Tilialo.
Tilialo played on the team from 2010-2013, and has spent the last two years as an assistant.
“Prior experience helps, but those with no experience can still make it. They just need coaching,” Tilialo said.
For the coaches, it’s all about a willingness to learn. For those trying out, it’s about fulfilling life-long goals.
Despite who makes the cut, and who doesn’t, one thing is certain: the BYU rugby team will be ready to pile on more wins when its season begins in the winter.