History of Florida Rugby
Two Aussies with a Vision
In March of 1969, students Phil Whyatt and Tony Barker, both from Australia, approached the University’s Head of Athletics about establishing rugby at the University of Florida. This first contact resulted in a number of conversations with various others that eventually led to a meeting with the Head of the Intramural Sports Department, Dr. Paul Varnes. Phil Whyatt has stated that, “This made no sense at the time [this Department looked after inter-frat flagball, tiddlywinks, etc.” Dr. Varnes, like most people in the United States, was unfamiliar with the sport of rugby and had reservations about the longevity of a collegiate rugby program at UF. However, to his enormous credit, Dr. Varnes agreed to support the concept of rugby, providing two rugby balls, some well-worn gator practice jerseys, and most importantly, a game field marked by his staff to rugby requirements, including goalpost. Aggressive recruiting, including notices in the Alligator newspaper and fraternity houses, led to more than enough interest, and the fielding of both an A and B side for the inaugural matches against the University of Georgia.
The Inaugural Match
On Friday, November 7th, 1969, the Gators hosted the University of Georgia (UGA) Bulldogs in its very first rugby matches with both an A Side and B Side matches played. Part of UF Rugby’s early success and the quick growth of rugby awareness on campus, was the result of a fortuitous happening on the pitch shortly before the first match. The first UF Rugby pitch was located on the Gator Practice Field (also referred to as the Upper Drill Field) adjacent to Florida Field. Arriving for the match, the players were horrified to find several hundred cars parked on the pitch. Across the road at Florida Field, there were thousands of spectators enjoying the Florida vs Georgia freshman football game, many of whom had parked on the pitch. Over the next 30 minutes, the spectators inside Florida Field heard several messages broadcast from the press box, in a distinct and strange Australian accent “At the end of this Freshman game, would those people who have parked on the adjacent practice field, please move your cars because a rugby game, Florida vs Georgia, is about to commence.” These spectators moved their cars, but no one left. The rugby match began and spectators were 5 people deep along the sidelines, watching the birth of a brand-new sport – cheering, applauding, groaning at some of the contact…and loving it! The match result was Florida 15, Georgia 3. Maybe even more important that the on-pitch victory was the winning over of the university crowd that day, which helped propel rugby as an established sport at the University of Florida.
A “fighting gator” patch was developed for the rugby jerseys, and while it has been revised over the years, the UF Rugby patch continues to be used on team jerseys alongside the University’s current athletic marks.
The inaugural match attracted considerable interest and generated good publicity from the Alligator and Gainesville Sun newspapers. Recruitment continued such that in February of 1970, UF Rugby participated in its first tournament, the Mardi Gras Tournament in Louisiana. The early years were filled with crude rugby at its best with worn jerseys, horrible tasting homemade Gator-Aide, and very long road trips to find competition.