Club History

A history of the Milwaukee Barbarians along with accomplishments and tours.

The Milwaukee Barbarians Athletic Club — aka Milwaukee Barbarians Rugby — is a sports organization in Wisconsin, USA that participates in the sport of rugby union. The Barbarians are a member of the Wisconsin and Midwest Rugby Football Unions, as well as the national governing body, USA Rugby.

Our History

In the beginning

Founded by Joe McCook and Joe Hegarty in the Spring of 1975, the club was originally known as Derry’s Rugby Club, named after Derry’s Pub near the intersection of N Hawley and Bluemound roads.

Derry’s Pub provided used football jerseys for the club’s early matches, and served as a meeting place and home for the team.

That summer, Tim Lawler, “Papa” Joe Kloiber and many others joined the club.

Together, McCook, Hegarty, Lawler, Kloiber and others, transformed the club from a bar team to an official rugby club called the Milwaukee West Side Harlequins RFC.

The Harlequins era

The Harlequins played their first official season in the Spring of 1976, and quickly became popular as much for its smash-mouth style of play as for its active social calendar.

From as early as 1977, the club toured extensively — especially in the United Kingdom — with Papa Joe organizing. The early tours were born from a close relationship the Gorseinon Rugby Club located in Swansea, Wales (UK).

Some early milestones of the club include organizing a women’s team in 1978 (the “Harlequin Hookers”) and hosting the inaugural Lakefront 7s rugby tournament in 1983, which has been held every year since. They also won their first Midwest Junior Cup in 1985 (that would be considered division 2 by modern standards).

The Harlequins really found their form on the pitch at the turn of the century. This earned them 8th- and 2nd-place finishes at the Division 3 National Championships in the Spring of 2000 and 2001, respectively.

A promotion to division 2 followed in the Fall of 2001.

The Sin Bin era

In March of 2003, the club purchased First Level — a pub on National Avenue — as an investment opportunity and social gathering place. It was renamed the Sin Bin Sports Bar shortly after opening.

The club operated the bar themselves for two years before making the decision to lease the bar to and it’s operations to a third party (the building was continuously leased until a successful sale in 2021).

By 2009, the club had found another gear on the pitch and were a dominating force in the Midwest’s division 2. They finished 7th in the nation that year and were again promoted, this time to division 1.

And of course, the touring continued with World Cup trips in 2007 and 2011.

The transition era

Division 1 rugby in the early 2010s was chaotic for all teams. The slow collapse of USA Rugby’s Super League, a reorganization by USA Rugby into new “geographic regions”, and lower participation rates resulted in confusion and stress for nearly every aspect of the club game.

The Harlequins remained competitive in this new structure and fielded both division 1 and division 3 sides. But they began to look for ways to match teams from bigger cities or those with larger player bases.

As a result, the players and coaches from the two oldest clubs in Milwaukee — the Harlequins and Milwaukee RFC — began to practice together occasionally. These informal meetings and eventual joint matches showed the potential of a unified rugby club from the greater Milwaukee region.

The Barbarians are born

With the hopes of formally merging both Harlequins and Milwaukee RFC, the club rebranded to the Milwaukee Barbarians in 2012. Although the merger never materialized in the end, the Milwaukee Barbarians brand continues to this day.

The young Barbarian club also enjoyed some success on the pitch, especially in sevens. The 2013 sevens side had a highly successful season attempting to qualify for the National Club championship, only to fall short by the narrowest of margins.

In fifteens action, the division 3 side notched a 7-1-0 record in the 2015 season and advanced to the Midwest playoffs.

In 2016, the Barbarians launched a touch rugby program for their Old Boys/alumni. On the success of this initiative, the Sustaining Membership system was launched in 2018 as a way for alumni to financially support the club.

In 2020, sustaining members — many of whom had only ever played in a Harlequins jersey — had become the largest benefactors of the Barbarians.

The modern era

By 2022, the Barbarians had entered a rebuilding phase with many of the players from the 2010s leaving Milwaukee or retiring. And of course the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on participation.

The club decided that their top side would return to division 2, work on recruiting and reduce the impact of travel on player retention. In just two seasons, the club had returned to winning ways with an undefeated 2023 regular season record in division 2 (7-0-1) and a 0.500 record for division 3 (3-3-0).

This success earned the Barbarians the opportunity to represent the Midwest in the 2023-2024 National Championship Sweet 16.

The more things change…

It’s easy to look at this abbreviated history of the club and note how much has changed. But it’s important to appreciate the similarities as well.

For example, a name change in 2012 is a repeat of the original name change in 1975. And the club is still touring, and still hosting the Lakefront 7s tournament, even after all these years.

Notably, the Barbarians regularly hold meetings at the location of our original pub — Derry’s — now Dugout 54.

Milestones & Accomplishments

  • 2023
    • 40th anniversary of Lakefront 7s
    • Division 2 Midwest runner-up
    • Division 2 National Sweet 16
  • 2022
    • Move to Division 2
  • 2016
  • 2010
    • Promoted to Division 1
  • 2009
    • Midwest Division 2 Western Conference Champions
    • 7th place, National Division 2
  • 2002 – 2007
    • Advanced to Midwest Division 2 playoffs
  • 2001
    • Midwest Division 3 Champions
    • 2nd place National Division 3
    • Promoted to Division 2 in the Fall
  • 2000
    • Midwest Division 3 Champions
    • 8th place, National Division 3
  • 1997 – 1999
    • Wisconsin Division 3 Champions
  • 1985
    • Midwest Junior Cup Champions

Club Tours

  • 2023 – France (Rugby World Cup)
  • 2011 – New Zealand (Rugby World Cup)
  • 2007 – Wales & France (Rugby World Cup)
  • 2005 – New Zealand (British & Irish Lions Tour)
  • 1999 – England, Ireland, Scotland & Wales (Rugby World Cup)
  • 1991 – England (Rugby World Cup)
  • 1989 – Wales
  • 1985 – Scotland & Wales
  • 1980 – Ireland & Wales
  • 1977 – Ireland & Wales