Best College Rugby Programs Of All-Time: America's Blue Bloods On The Pitch

Best College Rugby Programs Of All-Time: America's Blue Bloods On The Pitch

Many of the United States’ top rugby superstars have come through the college game, and many more will, as the country’s rugby scene ramps up development.

Feb 8, 2024 by Briar Napier
Best College Rugby Programs Of All-Time: America's Blue Bloods On The Pitch

Many of the United States’ budding rugby superstars have come through the college game, and many more will in the future, as the country’s rugby scene ramps up development in hopes of competing at the 2027 and 2031 Rugby World Cups — the latter of which will be held in the United States.

And though there are plenty of solid college programs across the country to turn to in hopes of carving out a solid rugby career, a few, in particular, stand out above the rest.

College rugby, like most other college sports, has its own set of diehard fans and elite programs, even with no representation in the highest level of college athletics, the NCAA. 

It’s a competitive, exciting setup outside of the usual sphere of college sports that few know about, compared to the colossal shows college football and basketball put on — but it’s also a setup more people should know about, too.

After all, someone who may lead the USA Eagles to unprecedented heights in the near future may be toiling away in the college game right now.

Here’s a look at five of the best college rugby programs of all time, with many of the same programs seeing games streamed live and exclusively on FloRugby throughout the college rugby season: 

NOTE: This list only takes 15s national championships into account.

University Of California, Berkeley

When talking about the pinnacle of excellence in college rugby, the conversation begins and ends with the Golden Bears. 

No school in the United States can touch Cal and its track record in the sport. 

Of the 30 National Collegiate Rugby Championship finals the program has competed in, it has won 26 of them, including an epic stretch of 12 straight from 1991-2002. 

The Golden Bears’ national championship count goes up to 28 if you’re also including the two Varsity Cup Championship trophies Cal won in 2016 and 2017 before the breakaway competition folded after five years of play in the mid-2010s. 

If all of Cal's national titles were considered official team championships by the NCAA, the Golden Bears would rank third all-time for most national titles in one sport by a single school. Keep in mind, the National Collegiate Rugby Championships have only been held since 1980.

Former most-capped USA Eagle Mike MacDonald, ex-Eagles captain Blaine Scully and multi-time USA Rugby World Cup squad members Eric Fry and Louis Stanfill, among many other talented players, were Golden Bears standouts. 

And what all of those names have in common is that they were coached by United States Rugby Hall of Famer Jack Clark, who has steered the Cal rugby program to untouched success since taking over at his alma mater in 1984.

Life University

A small, private university in suburban Atlanta that competes in the lower-tier NAIA in most sports, Life University, probably is known best for being a school for budding chiropractors, instead of one for its world-renowned athletes. 

But in the college rugby universe, the Running Eagles are a force to be reckoned with and respected. 

Having recently emerged on the national scene, Life routinely has filled the void of being the nation’s top college rugby power throughout much of the past decade-plus, winning all four of its national championships (2013, 2016, 2018, 2019) since Cal won its last first-place trophy in 2011. 

The Running Eagles even went back-to-back on the Golden Bears in 2018 and 2019, as the Life Director of Men’s Rugby. Blake Bradford — a South Africa native, former Life player and a practicing chiropractor — has led his squad to six national finals since taking over the program in 2014.

Ireland-born Bristol Bears fly-half AJ MacGinty utilized a standout career at Life U to become eligible for the USA Eagles, becoming one of the national team’s key pieces in the process; he’s one of the many former Running Eagles to carve out solid professional careers in rugby during the school’s recent and unprecedented run of success.

Air Force

Unofficially known as Zoomie Rugby Football Club — with “Zoomie” being slang for a student at the Air Force Academy in Colorado — Air Force is the most historically successful of the service academies in college rugby, with it being level with Life U for the second-most National Collegiate Rugby Championship final appearances (eight). 

Though it has captured three national titles overall, with those coming in 1989, 1990 and 2003, the Falcons are a bit of a lost power on the national stage, however. 

While military brethren Army and Navy have captured the past two national championships in 2022 and 2023, respectively, Air Force last made the semifinal round of the competition in 2004.

At the same time, many of the sport's highest-profile matches over the past couple of decades have been annual Shea Cup fixtures between Air Force and the other service academies, a competition that has been dominated in recent years by Navy. 

Still, numerous former Zoomies have gone on to play for the United States' national rugby team, such former sevens captain Ben Trautwein and Matt Schmitz, a former Eagle who is serving for them in another role as a team physician.

Saint Mary’s

With 136 years of history as a program behind it, Saint Mary’s rugby — which started playing games in 1888 — is a standard setter, a torch bearer and an iconic brand in college rugby, though it wasn’t always the case.

Coach Tim O’Brien, a former national title-winning Cal player and USA Eagle, took over the Gaels program in 2001 and transformed it into a legitimate power on the national championship scene, completing the school’s climb to the mountaintop when SMC won its first national championship in 2014. 

Since then, the Gaels have taken home two more national titles (in 2015 and 2017), while qualifying for the National Collegiate Rugby Championship final twice on top of that, most recently in 2022, and O’Brien was inducted into the United States Rugby Hall of Fame in 2017 for his contributions to the game.

Even with juggernaut Cal breathing down its neck in Berkeley and trying to bring in many of the same players just 15 miles away from the Saint Mary’s campus in Moraga, California, the Gaels have produced some fantastic talent on the pitch, including a pair of Rudy Scholz Award winners. 

The award is given to the top player in Division 1-A rugby each year. One of those winners, Dylan Audsley, became a USA Eagle and key contributor for the San Diego Legion in Major League Rugby.


Utah is one of the United States’ few true rugby hotbeds, and one of its biggest universities, unsurprisingly, is home to one of the country’s most decorated college rugby programs. 

Based on National Collegiate Rugby Championship results, the Cougars have brought home two national championships out of seven trips to the final, winning their first trophy in 2009 over Cal - then, just the second national title the Golden Bears had missed out on since 1991 — before capturing their next championship three years later (2012) over Arkansas State in nearby Sandy, Utah. 

That victory spurred on a run of dominance, depending on who you ask; BYU then went on to win the first three editions of the offshoot Varsity Cup Championship, though its 2015 title in that competition was vacated because the Cougars allegedly fielded an ineligible player. 

The program later returned to USA Rugby’s D1-A division, before the Varsity Cup shuttered after the 2017 season.

None of the lower 48 states have Pacific Islanders making up a higher percentage of their total population than Utah (1.1%), and that’s shown in BYU’s roster and history, as its ranks often have a big Polynesian influenc. The squad has even performed a specially created haka before matches. 

Shaun Davies and Paul Lasike, both of whom competed for the USA Eagles in the 2019 Rugby World Cup, are ex-Cougars, as was the late Mike Leach, who to American football fans was known for coaching exciting offences at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State before his death in late 2022.

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