KINGSTON, R.I. — April 2, 2019 — Thousands packed Keaney Gymnasium and the then-Providence Civic Center to watch the Running Rams basketball team in the mid- to late-1970s as it grew into a national power.
But behind Keaney, where it was often cold and windy, small groups assembled each fall and spring to watch another URI squad that was quite possibly the best team in Kingston during that period.
Unlike the basketball Rams who were coached by the legendary Jack Kraft, defeated Providence two out of three times in the 1977-78 season and earned an automatic bid to the 32-team NCAA tourney, the rugby club team had no coaches, scheduled its own games and practices and developed its own uniforms. Oh, and this squad regularly played and defeated some of the best men’s teams in the country inside and outside of the college ranks.
The exploits of that team, the University of Rhode Island Rugby Club, are covered in Kevin Cronan’s book, “Rugby Tries and Knock Ons: Tales of a college rugby player in New England and the game that gave birth to American football.”
Cronan, an East Providence native and now a resident of Hopkinton, who earned his bachelor’s degree in elementary education at URI in 1977, joined the rugby club in 1975.
“I ran track in high school, and never played football, but I figured my speed would be an asset in rugby,” said Cronan, who retired last year after serving the University for 12 years, five years with University Computing Services and the last seven as an information technologist in the Admission Office. “But I found out that track speed is different than rugby speed. I also had to learn how to tackle and that was all new to me.”
Using the pen name Connor Murphy, Cronan barely mentions his own accomplishments, but instead focuses on the competitive excellence and the bonds he formed with his teammates that have persisted over the decades. He also captures URI in the 1970s, when the legal drinking age was 18 and kegs were tapped at the end of a match and beers were quaffed with the opposing team and fans. Happy hour at the pub in the Memorial Union counted as rugby practice and also a time to sing a salty tune or two, the lyrics of which can be found on pages 40 through 49.
He recalls the bubble, the inflatable facility where the track team practiced on a wooden, banked track, and which often blew over in bad storms and blizzards.
The book is filled with photos from The Good 5 Cent Cigar, the student newspaper, and Renaissance, the yearbook, which show scenes that will be familiar to many alumni, including toga parties, the Rams Den balcony, Narragansett night spots and great rugby action shots.
The players had nicknames like “Steak,” “Cowboy,” “Nags,” “Boomer,” “J-Tags,” “Rox,” “Tats,” and “Bales,” and boy could they play. In his 193-page book published last year by Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd. in London, Cronan describes the Rams’ dominance in rugby 15s (15 players a side) and in rugby sevens (the speedier, seven-player-a-side version).
In 1978, the Rhody A Team won the college division of the annual post-Thanksgiving New York sevens tournament. At that tourney, match officials decided to have URI square off against the men’s division champion, Binghamton, N.Y. URI won the match 12-3 and gained a nice headline in The Providence Journal, “Rhody ruggers win tourney.” It was the last time the tournament allowed the college champions to play the men’s division champions. In fact, in today’s game, college and university teams do not play men’s teams. But in its heyday Rhode Island Rugby took on all comers, and it usually did it with its A, B and C teams. It also played matches during the fall and spring semester.
Here are some of the highlights from that period:
Spring 1978–URI at home, White Plains Rugby Football Club (15-a-side); in brutal weather, the Rams destroy this good men’s team, 34-6
Fall 1978–URI at Charles River (men’s) Rugby Football Club, (15-a-side) in Boston; URI wins, 54-0
Spring 1979–URI at Providence Rugby (men’s) Football Club, (15-a-side), at Hope High School; Rams win 30-10
Spring 1979–Harvard Sevens Tournament: Rams defeat Mystic River, 16-0; Brown University, 18-0; Coast Guard B, 22-0; Beacon Hill, 16-6; and Washington Exiles, 30-4. They defeat the Hartford (men’s) Rugby Football Club 10-3 in the finals. Their record qualified the Rams for the National Sevens Tournament in the summer. They lost in the tournament final match to the Denver Barbarians men’s club 12-10 on a late, controversial play.
While the wins were important, Cronan said it was the deep friendships he and his mates formed that made that time so special.
“In rugby it’s the team, and over the years we have stayed in touch,” Cronan said. “Because we had so many reunions and so many great stories, I was able to write the book.”
Cronan said Harry and Sue Seidler (both URI alumni) held these yearly get-togethers at their home in Jamestown. Bob Read helped with various technical rugby jargon and old rugby photos supplied by his wife Gail, who worked for the Cigar during that era. Bobby Belluzzi, who remembers everything about Rhody Rugby and the many matches – also supplied Cronan with great game highlights. Kevin’s wife Leslie, also an alumnus and current University employee, who attended some of these matches, and their children — Sean and Casey, who have heard these stories many times — also helped with book support.