The development of rugby in Puerto Rico has hit a historic milestone this spring with the first-ever women’s match played in Puerto Rico at the third annual ‘Founders’ Fest’ rugby event hosted with much success.
With plans still on the table to apply for Rugby Americas North (RAN) Associate Membership this year, Jorge Soltero, Director of Rugby Puerto Rico (or Puerto Rico Football Rugby Union), says his nation is firmly committed to the vision to compete internationally, as well as to develop both a women’s and youth side, and is well on its way to realizing these goals and much more.
Soltero, together with Head Coach Nico Inciarte, Ben Harries, and wife Tori Soltero, form Rugby Puerto Rico’s Executive Committee who he says are a dedicated team of rugby professionals and enthusiasts, determined to grow the game in Puerto Rico to new and exciting heights.
Bringing Rugby to Puerto Rico
After coming back home in 2016 from a 10-year stint in London, Jorge and Tori Soltero were determined to develop a rugby presence in Puerto Rico.
They had both been very active at their club in London and decided the time was right to ignite local efforts to grow the game of rugby on the island for everyone to enjoy.
“It began as a handful of players, many of whom had never seen a rugby ball before or even heard of rugby,” he says. “We posted on social media and started to gain some momentum until we grew into hosting summer camps, school clinics, and coaching courses; building up a small roster of players and officials.”
Day-to-day, Soltero now works to organize the Union, collaborate with RAN, and connect with local institutions to promote and/or organize rugby programs, including player recruitment, coaching, youth development, hosting touring sides, and organizing tournaments.
However, Jorge’s rugby journey started back in 1994 at the University of Chicago, where he was a B-side fullback who quickly fell in love with the game and the culture of rugby.
“Unfortunately, after graduation, I moved away from rugby,” he says. “But, I came back to it as a fan in 2001 when I was living in London. I did play touch rugby a few times with friends but being in London when England won the 2003 World Cup was great for keeping my passion alive albeit from the sidelines. However, in 2004, we moved to the US and I lost touch with the sport again.”
In 2009, after moving back to London, Soltero says he gravitated once again towards rugby when he started to look for a kid’s rugby program for his son.
“We ended up finding Hammersmith and Fulham Rugby Football Club,” he says. “My son enjoyed it and my wife and I made good friends there. In 2010, I found myself helping to coach my son’s Under 8s side. Our involvement grew and by 2016, I was Head Coach of the Youth Section and my wife, Tori, was on the Youth Program Board of Directors.”
During that time, Jorge also completed England Rugby Football Union’s (RFU) ‘Rugby Ready’ and Rugby Levels 1 and 2 certifications, as well as the RFU’s Director of Rugby Course.
“I also got roped into getting back on the field and playing for the Hammersmith and Fulham Vets side,” he says. “This really was a great time, not just because of the chance to play socially again, but also because the Hammers Vets were quite involved in raising funds for the RFU’s Injured Players Fund, including playing charity matches, of which I played two. Most importantly, since the inception of this charity match, the Hammers Vets have raised well over £100,000 for the Injured Players Fund which really means a lot to me.”
In 2018, Soltero then retired from playing the sport and began focusing on coaching and growing rugby on the ground in Puerto Rico.
Developing the Game
There has been much growth for rugby in Puerto Rico since 2016, with Jorge and his team not only making big strides in the development of the men’s game, but in the women and youth components as well.
Last month, the first ever women’s match was played in Puerto Rico, alongside a new national event called ‘Founders’ Fest’, both of which are critical to the development of the sport on the island.
“The first Founders’ Fest was played in 2019,” says Soltero. “Men’s teams from Rugby Puerto Rico, British Virgin Islands (BVI), and the League of Gentleman Adventurers from the USA participated in this inaugural 7s tournament which was enjoyed by all.”
Jorge says that while there was then no 2020 iteration of the Fest due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the event returned for a second time with a bang in 2021.
“We were unable to schedule the third Founders’ for the fall of 2022, but since we knew that Babson College would be visiting San Juan for their spring training, we decided to host it in March this year instead so that they could participate.”
Soltero says the 2023 Founders’ Fest saw Rugby Puerto Rico host two Babson men’s sides, as well as the BVI 7s side.
“This year, the Puerto Rico men recorded their first ever victory, beating the Babson Maulers,” he says. “This was a historic milestone for rugby in Puerto Rico.”
In another historic first last month, Jorge says the Puerto Rico women played their first ever competitive match.
“We had started recruiting women players in late 2021, which is to say, we had two women players who found us, joined up, and were happy to train with the men – Eden Wilkinson and Paige Miller,” he says. “But the numbers slowly grew and heading into March 2023, we had 12 women on the squad. We tried to get a women’s club side from the US to come down and play at the Founders’ Fest but it was not possible this time around.”
Despite no international women’s team appearance at the 2023 Fest, Soltero says they still wanted the ladies to get the chance to play, so they split the squad along local club lines (Dragons vs Lions) and they played each other instead; officially becoming the first women’s rugby match in Puerto Rico.
Captain of the local Lions club, Paige Miller, says this first match was a huge step forward for women’s rugby in Puerto Rico.
“This was a moment we had been working towards for almost two years,” she says. “Just a year ago, there were only three or four of us, and we played in a men’s game. For most of our players, this most recent women’s game was their first time playing in a full-contact match. It was so meaningful to be able to share this historic moment with my teammates, and especially with our coaches—without them Puerto Rico wouldn’t even have rugby. Not too long ago, it almost seemed impossible that we would ever have a full women’s side, but we stuck with it and I’m so proud that we did. We all worked really hard to recruit and prepare for this first game, and to see it all come together was so surreal and exciting.”
Miller says that this is only the beginning for women’s rugby in Puerto Rico, and that they will use this first match to generate more interest locally.
“This game helped us to get some exposure,” she says. “We’ve already recruited two new members since then, and we’re hoping to keep this momentum going.”
And, Soltero agrees.
“We’re now actively also looking for a women’s touring side to come down to San Juan next fall,” he says. “We also have a growing group of locals, expats, university exchange students, and women from the US Armed Forces who we are working with to build their confidence and to keep things progressing for women’s rugby in Puerto Rico in the right direction.”
The Future of Rugby in Puerto Rico
Jorge says the Union remains determined to see rugby become a household name in Puerto Rico and to broaden their experience in all facets of the game in order to become competitive on the international stage.
“We continue to push forward,” he says. “We will be submitting an application to Rugby Americas North (RAN) this year to become an official Associate Member. We also actively hold clinics in our local schools and maintain good relations with the Department of Sports and Recreation and the Department of Education to develop programs with them too.”
Soletero says the island actively encourages touring international teams to visit Puerto Rico to assist to build local players’ skill sets and to increase their exposure to different styles of play.
He says he remains hopeful for rugby in Puerto Rico in the years to come:
“With Associate RAN membership and a proper sponsor or two, we look forward to more growth in 2024: more players, more club matches, more school visits,” he says. “We also hope to close in on a nominated rugby training ground for next season, which will make our recruitment much easier. We will continue to grow our Founders’ Fest with more teams from the region participating, including women’s sides, and we are excited to officially become part of the Caribbean rugby community.”