Tony Brown and Mark Griffiths have a lot on their plates this 2014 season, as they are coaching both men’s and women’s rugby this year at Vassar. This daunting task has not seemed to phase them at all, seeing as both teams have been off to an impressive start. The men’s team is currently undefeated in the Tri-State Conference and is sporting a 4-1 record overall. Their only loss to date was to the United States Merchant Marine Academy. The men expect to be moving only up from here; in a written statement, senior player Geoffrey Matthes said, “According to rugbymag.com, we are (as of 9.25.14) ranked 21st in Division 2 rugby nationally. While our only loss was our first game to a Division 1 opponent, and we have experienced success so far, there is definitely a lot of room for improvement. ” The team expects to see continued improvement in the future with some big match-ups approaching. This October, the men will take on New Paltz College and Marist College on the Vassar Farm.
The women have also enjoyed much early success. They are happily sitting on a 5-0 start to their season. The women’s team dominated in a 37-5 blowout victory against Marist, a team they have struggled against in the past. They also trounced SUNY New Paltz in a 91-5 victory in late September and they hope to see some improvement moving forward. After getting a taste of success by making it to the final four last season, the team is focused on getting back to the national stage. “There have definitely been phases where we didn’t play as well as we could have [so far], and I think that has made everyone realize how hard we need to work during practice if we want to go back to the final four,” said senior captain Meg Slattery in a written statement. They will have an opportunity to show their hard work as they still have The University of Albany and Rutgers University to play in October; both games will be at home. “How far they go depends on their work ethic and commitment,” said Head Coach Tony Brown in a written statement.
Both teams are thinking very positively about their futures and know what an important role their coaching staff plays in their season’s success. “I think the sky is the limit,” said Matthes, “In the team’s mind, there is no looking back now, we know we have the ability to get to the level and go further, and it is certainly not [due] to natural talent for the game or superior athletic ability. It is due to the brilliance of the coaching staff.” Brown thinks of success is a two way street and that his athletes will ultimately decide where VC Rugby goes this season. “I would hope that the team gets better each week and that they have aspirations to win as many games as possible,” he said, “My personal goals for the team are to help them achieve as much as they want to achieve.”
The same goes for the women’s team, remarked Slattery, “I think that under their leadership, where VC Rugby goes depends largely on the players, because it’s definitely a two-way street. If we decide that we want to be a successful team that is competitive on the national scale, we can do it. [Assistant Coach] Mark and Tony can get us there if we are willing to put in the work.”
And VC Rugby has certainly been putting in the work. The teams have been practicing since August 19 and have been using practice mostly to refine basic technique and to increase the effectiveness of physicality. “They emphasize the physical contact of the game over pretty much everything else, which I definitely appreciate because it’s somewhat rare for women’s teams. So despite being smaller than your average rugby team, our tackling and rucking is often better than the teams we play, and that ultimately is the most important factor in who wins and who loses. We’ve been focusing a lot on the basic technique and intensity of our rucking and tackling during practice recently, because we still have a lot of room for improvement” explained Slattery.
It is no different for the men’s team, according to Matthes: “We have a style of defense that is used by nearly no other program in the country, and our attacking pattern is pretty unique as well. I attribute that to Tony and Mark being so knowledgeable about the game that they’ve developed our strategy specifically to accommodate the fact that our team is without fail smaller in stature than the teams we play.”
Tony Brown got his start coaching at George Mason University before coming to Vassar in 1995. At the time, Vassar, other than Cal-Berkeley, was the only school to offer a position as a full-time rugby coach. In his time here, Brown has taken a liking to Vassar, “The students are intelligent and a pleasure to teach and coach,” he explained. “The Vassar administration chose to support the students who opted to play rugby and that was the right thing to do. These students play a contact sport and take risks that deserve recognition and support.”
According to the players, much of the success comes from the coaching staff. “Both our coaches have professional level rugby experience under their belts, they use that experience to teach us to play smarter than the average team. One of the keys to our success is focusing on advanced strategy that gives us an edge over bigger but less strategically oriented teams. We’re usually the smaller players on the pitch, but we typically play a little smarter,” said senior men’s player John Sheehy.
For Slattery, Brown has fostered a feeling of connection between generations of Vassar Rugby players. Slattery noted, “Tony particularly has done amazing things for the Vassar Rugby program. Largely due to his efforts, there is an active and highly supportive community surrounding VC Rugby that extends generations back, and it’s a really cool feeling to be a part of that legacy. It’s impossible for me to imagine what the rugby program would be like here without Tony Brown.”
But some of Brown’s most powerful impacts on his athletes are most evident off the pitch. His athletes appreciate his willingness to have academics come first. Said Slattery, “Our coaching staff is also very understanding when it comes to academics, which I’m very thankful for; they realize that we all came to Vassar because we wanted to get a good education, and that is what takes priority.” Another off the pitch specialty of the coaching staff is what they refer to as “integrated curriculum.” Matthes explained, “In the many hours we spend at the farm we discuss rugby of course, but we also discuss film, international policy and a myriad of other topics. It guarantees that rather than being a group of guys that have one thing—rugby—in common, we actually become incredibly close with each other and the coaches as well.”