Dog Days for James Madison Rugby

The men’s rugby club of James Madison University will not be ignored. In fact, they seem to be popping up everywhere this spring—tied with Temple atop the leader board of the Keystone Conference 7s series; victorious in the Capital 7s in February; victorious over UNLV, Colorado and Lindenwood-Belleville on their way to a semifinal berth at the Las Vegas Invitational; the 15s side in a D1AA playoff game against Harvard this weekend; competing later this month at URugby Sevens-Virginia Beach—a full plate to be sure for the reigning Keystone conference 15s champs.

All this in only their first year in D1AA competition. JMU were D2 national sevens champions in 2014-15 before deciding to jump to Keystone last fall. 

Later this year, the Dukes will join the newly-formed Chesapeake Collegiate Rugby Conference, along with ACRL orphans Virginia Tech, Maryland and Virginia, recent D2 national semi finalists Towson and Salisbury, Cardinal Conference stalwart Mothers Rugby, and others. 

Madison Rugby celebrated their 40th anniversary with a special alumni day on April 9, welcoming former players back to an invigorated and successful club under the leadership of Coaching Director Mark Lambourne, now in his fifth year with the program. 

We checked in with Lambourne this week on the team’s recent accomplishments and goals for the future. 

Q&A: Mark Lambourne, Coaching Director, James Madison Rugby 

Why do you think the Dukes have been so successful in their first full season in D1AA?

I think part of the reason is we have been trying to develop a program at JMU that looks out over the life cycle of each athlete as they come to the school and is not just focused on winning each year. As soon as we finish in the fall we try to reassess our depth charts and give players opportunities so we develop them over a one- to two-year process. … I’m looking to build a program [where] players know their role and know how things are done.

The second thing is that in the last three years, even though we were D2, we went seeking D1 competition. … We tried to play as many games against quality competition as we could so that we were prepared for what the D1 conference had to offer. 

Why are you excited for the opportunity to play at URugby Virginia Beach?

Last year we were lucky enough to win the D2 national championship at sevens and this year we decided to put an emphasis on sevens … so we targeted two or three quality tournaments, with Virginia Beach being one of them, where we can test ourselves against some of the best teams in the country. There are very few places you can go do that. I would say [Virginia Beach] is probably a stronger field than what we saw at Las Vegas, because the best teams avoid Las Vegas.

It’s good for us to get [this level of] competition, part of our establishing a very strong sevens program at JMU. 

What made you decide to join the newly-formed Chesapeake Conference? 

I am a great believer that rugby athletic conferences should mirror the allegiances and rivalries that the rest of [a college’s] sports have. What the Chesapeake Conference gives us is an opportunity to have natural rivalries against Virginia Tech, Virginia and Maryland, schools that JMU alumni who aren’t even involved with rugby will recognize. You throw on top of that Georgetown, which is a great brand, add Towson and Salisbury, which are two quality rugby programs, and then you add two schools which have got varsity status, which I think most of us would aspire to see, and I think you’ve got a pretty damn good conference.  

Number two, logistics. We liked the Keystone Conference but that put us on pretty long trips [for away games] … so here, we are never more than 2-3 hours away from a game. That’s a big plus. The third thing is the way we’ve structured the conference. We’ve got a group of people focused on student-athletes, building programs and developing collegiate high-performance teams. 

It’s a small conference, it’s got brand recognition, and hopefully we’ll make it into one of the top quality conferences in the country. 

What does the 40th anniversary mean to you? What did last weekend’s festivities say about the spirit of the team and alumni?

I think the most important thing for me as a newcomer to the program is that the guys who started out with me four years ago all came back. We’ve got a good strong group of young alumni. We’ve reinvigorated the older alumni. They are very proud of the heritage and the history of James Madison—they’ve produced several USA Rugby Eagles—and they are excited about the brand of rugby we are playing. 

I think the thing we made very clear to everyone is we’ve had a good run for four years and we believe we are at the start of another four- year goal. … We want to start to build the infrastructure around the program—put on camps for high schoolers, create an active touch rugby, create a clubhouse facility alongside the field the university has provided for us.

So [the reunion] was a, ‘Guys, great to have so many of you back, glad you like what you’ve seen over the last for years. Guess what- we’ve only scratched the surface. Come along for the ride.’

Article by Jim Sturdivant