The Extra Mile: Rugby
LEXINGTON, Va. April 11, 2023 — When Kenny Howerton ’23 entered high school, he discovered that his school had one of the only high school rugby teams in Virginia. This was a perfect match for someone who had been playing the sport since age 10. Howerton joined his high school’s team and the rest, as they say, is history.
“From men’s clubs to high school, and now at VMI. I have immersed myself in rugby, and I love it,” he said.
Howerton leads VMI Rugby as team captain. He was introduced to the sport through his uncle, who played at the collegiate level.
Howerton shared that the team is one of the most diverse teams on post. “From former NCAA athletes to cadre members and privates, we all come together with a common goal: to play rugby.”
Playing the game
In the game of rugby, each number on a jersey corresponds to a specific job and role on the team. Passing, catching, and tackling are the basic skills required of each player on the VMI Rugby team. Players wearing the numbers one through eight typically have a large build, an aggressive style of play, and consistently fast-paced movements. These players, known as the “forward pack,” are tasked with carrying the ball into tight pockets of space.
Players nine through 15 are traditionally the speedier players, referred to as “backs.” These players have the job of working the ball towards the outside of the field and scoring for their team.
The sport of rugby is very popular across the globe, but for many Americans, it falls under the general category of sports and does not draw the same crowds as football, basketball, or baseball. Nate Mayfield ’24, co-captain of VMI’s Rugby team, shares that the sport has carried him through very challenging times.
In his first year at VMI, Mayfield had serious doubts about the length of his cadetship. With the help of his coaches, Mayfield was able to persevere, and has found his place at VMI on the rugby field.
“My coaches had a really big impact on me and gave me something to work for that was bigger than myself, and bigger than the things going on around me,” he said.
Both cadets shared that the sport has taught them lessons that will last beyond their four years on the team. Two of the bigger lessons are sacrifice and leadership.
“You’re out there with 14 of your best friends. You can’t win a game without all 15 people working together and you learn to sacrifice,” he said. “You use a lot of pain and fatigue to help fight alongside the other 14 guys and protect them. You all push each other towards the same common goal.”
When it comes to leading a team, Mayfield shared that there is an unseen side to leadership. “Being a rugby captain is not very glamorous,” he said. “It means you are the first one down to the pitch for training. You’re going to be the one sweeping out the sheds or cleaning out the buses after a tournament.”
Mayfield explained that he is no stranger to sacrifice, and in many ways, VMI prepared him to lead a team.
“I’m better prepared to sacrifice for my teammates who I know, when it comes down to it, they are going to be willing to sacrifice themselves for me during a game.”
Creating a community with camaraderie
When Howerton speaks about rugby, one word that rings true is community.
“The biggest thing that I love about rugby is the camaraderie that I've built with every single team that I've played with, especially at VMI,” he said. “From passing each other in the hallway, going to class, walking in barracks, or eating down in Crozet, anytime I see one of the guys on the team, my face lights up. I know that guy has my back, and I can always count on them.”
When asked about the meaning of the sport, Howerton shared that the brotherhood within rugby is long-lasting and deeply supportive.
“You have fifteen other guys on the field that are willing to help you and be there for you every step of the way, to make sure that you get to where you need to be,” he said.
Once the final whistle is blown, the aggressive game comes to an end and players join to create friendships.
“There’s a brotherhood that is built in between the tackles and the tries. At the end of my four years on VMI’s Rugby team, I can honestly say that it is the best decision I have made,” Howerton said.
The rugby revival
Last year, VMI Rugby ended its season at the national championship in New Orleans. From injuries to attitudes, the team did not perform at the high level that they had planned for. Through this difficult season, the team found hope and began to prepare for its current season.
“In all of our eyes, we saw the level of competition. We saw where we were, versus where we wanted to be. From that moment on, we kind of had a different attitude,” Howerton said.
To build the team from the ground up, Howerton said they all had to become students of the game. “We saw our goals and what they needed to be, and we knew that it was going to take a lot of work to get back to where we were and to achieve even greater than we had.”
Mayfield further explained this concept: “Our biggest goal for this year would definitely be building our game knowledge from where we were last semester and making sure that all seven guys on the field are working as one unit and really playing fundamental rugby.”
This year, the team is hopeful for an invitation to the national tournament, held in Washington, D.C., and an even better outcome. Mayfield explained that there is a large population of VMI alumni in D.C.
“We expect a lot more support this year,” he said. “We’d really like to have some home crowds there to come watch us and really be able to put on a big show.”
The rugby team has one final opportunity to qualify for the national tournament. VMI Rugby will travel to East Carolina University April 15. If they succeed, they will appear at the national tournament from April 28-30.
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