5 Questions: Matt Sherman

Matt Sherman

Matt Sherman, who lives in Cold Spring, is in his ninth season as coach of the men’s rugby team at West Point and last year led the Black Knights to a Division 1-A national championship. As a player, he was a three-time All-American at the University of California and played for three seasons on the U.S. national team. 

What did you like about rugby the first time you played?
When I was growing up in Piedmont, California, I played everything: football, basketball, baseball. When I was 15, my friends and I were coming home from school, and our older brothers “kidnapped” us and forced us to play. I’d never heard of the sport; I was scared out of my mind. But I survived and started to like it, and joined my high school team. It’s a challenging, physical game that requires endurance. You have to be brave and make a ton of decisions. Everyone’s a leader; everyone’s a decision-maker. You’re trying to find cohesion in a chaotic, high-pressure environment.

Are rugby rivalries as serious as in football?
All rugby is serious. The annual Army-Navy match is an intense, emotional day. [Navy won the 2023 national title; the teams meet at West Point on Nov. 10.] It’s hard to beat the Army-Navy football game, but for us, it’s the pinnacle experience, always before a massive crowd. We have other big rivals; Penn State and St. Bonaventure are always good. A lot of West Coast teams are quite good, including Cal and Brigham Young. I also played at the University of Oxford in England. It’s a strange, unique place in a lot of ways. Rugby is essentially a graduate-student team that is all about one game versus Cambridge, the same as with the rowing race [between the two schools]. Your season comes down to one match in front of 50,000 people in Twickenham Stadium. 

You also coached at Stanford. How do the cadets compare?
The demands on the cadets are much higher, yet they have the mindset of always wanting to do more. I’m blessed to coach kids like that. But sometimes they need to measure themselves less, or they’ll burn out. In some ways, less is more at Army. There’s such a great opportunity to tie the team into the greater purpose of West Point, to develop leaders of character to fight and win our nation’s wars. If rugby can help them develop, I find tremendous meaning in that, as do the players.

Rugby requires far less protective equipment than football. Is that more dangerous?
I think the number of injuries works out to be about the same. People argue that less equipment helps promote safer tackling because you’re not going to weaponize your body as much. You’re going to use techniques that protect you. Beginning 10 to 15 years ago, when awareness of concussions in football increased, a lot of football coaches borrowed those safer rugby techniques. You see more of that style in football now.

What was it like to play for the national team?
It was phenomenal. Being able to represent your country — and to play in a World Cup [in 2003] — is always special. I played rugby on every continent except Antarctica. Ireland was special; we played in the storied stadium on Landsdowne Road in Dublin. We played New Zealand’s famous Maori team. Playing Russia in northern Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Railway was unique — and a very hostile environment. They wanted to beat us, for sure. I don’t remember the score, but we lost a close game. I do remember breakfast — cow tongue. It was also hostile when we faced the Georgians in Tbilisi. In some places, it was more about the environment than the team we were playing. 

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