Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
The Division I Premier League, aka the CPL, is just about to kickoff their first season of play. With 31 teams spread out over four conferences, the competition is on the radar of nearly every college rugby fan in America.
Set as a step above Division I, DI Premier has much to prove to the masses. The fever pitch regarding the competition exploded when the original announcement was made in 2010 and has since simmered down greatly as questions and doubts have snuck into the picture. With games about to start, the teams involved have the opportunity to quiet the skeptics and produce rugby that all can enjoy and follow.
Rugby America takes a look at the four Division I Premier Conferences, the teams involved, and how things might turn out. In Part One of the two part series; we’re covering the Rugby East and Mid-South Conferences.
We start our preview with the Rugby East Conference. Perhaps the most well-balanced conference in the competition, Rugby East is made up of Penn State, Dartmouth, Ohio State, Army, Navy, Delaware, Kutztown and Rutgers.
Of the eight teams in the conference, there are only two (Ohio State and Rutgers) that cannot be counted as teams that could challenge for the two playoff spots that come from the conference.
Ivy League powerhouse Dartmouth comes into the season as one of the favorites in the conference. The squad cruised through the Ivy League in the fall, but will find the going tougher in the Rugby East Conference.
Dartmouth Head Coach Alex Magleby has a glut of talent led by Captain Tommy Brothers (Jr) who is 3-time All-Ivy League selection. Brothers leads a group that includes 2010 All-American flanker Paul Jarvis (Jr) and a host of honorable mention All-Americans and All-Ivy performers.
The Ivy League champs will rely on their deep and experienced squad and come into the conference season as one of the favorites.
“Looking forward to the week in/week out high level competition… a very fun challenge,” said Dartmouth’s Magleby in regard to the Rugby East schedule.
Kutztown Universityis one of the teams that will give Dartmouth the greatest push for conference honors. The small university located in Eastern Pennsylvania has been among one of the most consistent rugby programs in America. Fresh off reaching the finals of the CRC 7’s Challenger Division at the Las Vegas Invitational, Kutztown digs back in and prepares for the start of the Rugby East schedule.
The Golden Bears start off their schedule favorably with three straight home matches. With the friendly home atmosphere, Kutztown should get off to a good start in conference play and setup a pivotal matchup at Dartmouth in the final weekend of the season.
Never to be overlooked are the two service academies, Army and Navy. The two rugby programs have been perennial contenders in whatever competition they participate.
Army is coming off a trip to the Final 4 last season and boasts one of the top rugby facilities in all of the United States. They will use that to their advantage as they play host to Dartmouth, Penn State, Navy, and Rutgers during conference play.
Although Navy hasn’t been to the Division I playoffs since 2007, they are always in the running. The Rugby East Conference pits them against many of the teams that have stood in their way in recent years and they’ll need to find a way around those teams if they wish to reach the postseason.
The Midshipmen open up their season with Ohio State at home and then follow by hosting Rutgers. That should give Navy a great chance to get off on the right foot before Penn State come calling on April 2nd.
The University of Delawareis the dark horse in the competition, but they aren’t flying under anyone’s radar. Delaware starts their Rugby East campaign at home against Dartmouth. The matchup may determine how the rest of their season will go for the Blue Hens.
Delaware faces a formidable, but manageable road schedule with away games against Penn State, Kutztown, Ohio State, and Rutgers. That is weighed with home games against three conference favorites, which could end up in their favor.
There will be plenty of competition to go around in the Rugby East Conference, but Penn State is prepared to make a run at a playoff spot. The squad boasts a strong core of experienced upperclassmen including Collegiate All-Americans Chris Saint(Sr) and Kevin Kimble (Jr). A big and mobile pack along with the halfback combination of Saint and Joe Baker will be a vital part of Penn State’s success this coming season.
“The formation of this league is something that many have talked about and worked towards for a long time, and we are very pleased to be a part of it,” said Head Coach Don Ferrell.
The Nittany Lions play three of the conference contenders (Army, Navy, and Kutztown) on the road, so their path to the playoffs will be difficult. The squad already knows a little bit about difficulty as they took some lumps at the Las Vegas Invitational in preparation for the season.
“The competition will be fierce each and every week, which will certainly raise the standard, and make simply advancing from your region a major accomplishment,” added Ferrell.
Rounding out the Rugby East Conference are Rutgersand Ohio State. Both teams aren’t expected to challenge any of the conference leaders, but may have a few surprises in store for their opponents. For these two teams, this season may be more about learning and improving than wins/losses.
Heading west, we take a look at the Mid-South Conferencewhich is possibly the most spread out of the four Division I Premier Conferences. The conference consists of LSU, Arkansas State, Tennessee, Life, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma. The travel schedule will be intensive and road games could change the way the finals standings shape up.
The conference lacks the natural rivalries that exist in the other conferences and will have to make up for it on the field. Fortunately, there are some very good and interesting matchups throughout the conference.
The storyline to follow in the conference is how well teams stand up to the long road trips, especially as they get deep into the season and playoff hopes have passed for most. The conference is fairly well balanced and should produce some good matchups on a weekly basis as long as the travel doesn’t catch up with the teams.
Louisiana State University, guided by Head Coach Scott McLean, returns plenty of experience with upperclassmen that have been playing together for the better part of the last four seasons. An exciting team that prefers to play a fast and physical style of rugby, the Tigers are led by Captain Robert Johns (Sr).
LSU’s style of play lends perfectly to their impressive backline that includes Johns, Adam Ducoing (Sr), Jeff Lavasseur (Jr), and Mike Bordes (Jr).
The Tigers open up their season with Arkansas State and Life in two of their first three games. How they fare against the two conference favorites will help determine how their season goes.
“We are very excited to take on the challenges of the new CPL. It is a really great opportunity for our players and fans to see us face tough competition on a weekly basis,” said Senior Cody Cadella.
Life Universityis the newcomer on the college rugby scene, but they are far from being babes in the woods. Life has a strong rugby tradition with their graduate team and that same philosophy is now focused on their undergraduate side. Without much in the way of college rugby experience, Life still comes into conference play as one of the teams to beat in the Mid-South.
Life will get their “road warrior” badge this season with trips to face Texas A&M, Arkansas State, and Oklahoma. All three teams could give Life a run for their money and even more so if the road catches up with the Running Eagles.
Another Mid-South Conference favorite is Arkansas State who have made a fast rise through collegiate rugby and now ranks as one of the top programs in the nation. The Red Wolves have a favorable schedule with only one really big road trip on their schedule (Oklahoma on March 26th). They also travel to Tennessee to take on the Volunteers in what is one of the better rivalries in the conference. The two squads have a history in the south and should bring plenty of passion when they square off against each other.
The favorable schedule may give Arkansas State and early leg-up on the rest of the conference contenders.
The farthest north team in the conference, University of Notre Dame, has their hands full this coming season, but has some experience to guide them through the rough waters. Fighting Irish Head Coach Sean O’Leary will rely on strong Senior leadership from Captain Andrew O’Connor (Sr) who was a Midwest All-Star at scrumhalf. O’Leary also has a solid pack led by All-American lock Nick Civetta (Sr) and Midwest All-Star prop John Lalor (Sr).
Notre Dame also has a strong crop of recruits that will get valuable experience this season.
“We have developed a good “core skills” foundation and are starting to develop game understanding and when to use those skills,” said O’Leary.
The “Golden Domers” will have plenty of time to prepare and scout their competition as they don’t play their first conference game until the third week of the season when they take a trip to face LSU. The squad also has a rough turnaround in mid-April with back to back trips to Life and Arkansas State.
The University of Tennessee joins the Mid-South Conference with hopes of challenging for a conference title or at the very least get a playoff nod. The Volunteers are one of the top programs in the south and have the chops to back up the claim.
Tennessee Head Coach Butch Robertson has the horses to challenge for a conference title. Benji Goff (Sr) leads the charge for the speedy Vols. A two-way (7’s & 15’s) threat, Goff is one of the top players in the Mid-South Conference. He is joined by the reliable kicking of Sammy Anderson (Jr) and the locking duo of Grant Wood(Sr) and Joel Fugate (Sr).
“The CPL will be a big challenge with top notch teams competing on an almost weekly basis. In addition there will be long road trips for everyone in the conference making the task even greater to be in top form from week to week,” says Robertson.
Tennessee opens up conference play with the tough task of facing Life on the road. The matchup will be a pivotal clash right out of the gates with the victor getting an inside track towards the playoffs.
The University of Oklahoma could be a dark horse in the conference. The squad has a new director of rugby in Jon Velie and one of the top players in all of Division I Premier in Taylor Mokate.
“Jonny has been a part of OU Rugby since his father co-founded the club in 1974, when he was eight years old. The Director of Rugby position is a vehicle for OU Rugby to use his experience and knowledge of rugby and sports in general to develop long term vision and goals to ensure the rugby program operates on par with winning sporting tradition expected at the University of Oklahoma,” says Head Coach Kenneth Forehand.
The Sooners will need plenty of help to push for a playoff spot, but could have some surprises in store for their competition… especially the ones that have to travel to play them. Oklahoma plays host to Tennessee, Arkansas State, and Life… the top three contenders in the Mid-South. A couple upsets could go a very long way towards shifting the dynamic of the conference.
Texas A&M rounds out the conference and had a good buildup prior to the kickoff of conference play. The Aggies are led by Captain, Conor Bertrand (Sr) who was an Honorable Mention All-American in 2010 and has been to camp with the USA 7’s squad.
“He leads from the front and sets the example in regards to work ethic, preparation and skills. He doesn’t expect anyone to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. He is an outstanding young man with a very bright future on and off the field,” said Aggie Head Coach Craig Coates of his team captain.
Texas A&M starts the season with two home games, which will provide the platform to get their season off to a good start. Their stretch of three straight road games will be a formidable test for the Aggies.
That rounds our our Division I Premier Preview: Part I, the second installment, which covers the Pacific and Western Conferences, will be released early next week.