Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
By Ted Hardy, Editor, Rugby America
Just a few short weeks ago the Florida State Rugby team was riding high. On March 19th, the Seminoles were 4-0-1 in South Conference play with their lone blemish coming in a hard fought 20-20 tie against their heated rival, the University of Florida. A game in which Florida State led late in the game and had victory within their grasp.
Then things turned south for Florida State. The team reported the use of an ineligible player in their conference opener against Kennesaw State. A game that was an easy victory for the Seminoles was reversed to a defeat.
“It was a real unfortunate situation that the club had to go through,” said team President Dylan Hamilton.
The player in question was a senior that was not honest about taking classes. A situation that any team in college rugby could potentially face and a learning experience for Florida State that can be shared with everyone. At one time or another most teams have fielded ineligible players, whether they knew it or not. Such has been the nature of college rugby.
The difference now is that the game is beginning to grow and with that, teams incur the responsibilities that used to be reserved for varsity athletics. Florida State has served as a good reminder.
“It came down to a senior player not being honest about his classes, but it is something that has really brought us together as a team and an issue we put behind us and concentrated on our goals for the future.”
Those goals included taking down the Gators and claiming the South Division I Championship. That goal nearly came crashing after a 29-29 tie against Georgia last weekend, but the Seminoles still have an opportunity to catch Florida in the standings due to Florida’s recent tie against South Carolina.
“This rivalry has really heated up over the last few years. Obviously there is a natural one with the schools but on the rugby pitch it’s really become competitive,” added Hamilton.
“The last few contests have been decided by only a few points and every game is almost an instant classic.”
The rivalry has even taken on a name as the teams created a trophy for the rivalry last fall. The trophy is called the Gordo’s Cup, which is sponsored by a local restaurant in Tallahassee.
At 5-0-2, the Gators have 30 points in the South standings. Florida State is 3-1-2 with a total of 20 points. A bonus point win over the Gators this coming weekend, while denying Florida any bonus points follwed by a bonus point win in their final conference game against South Carolina next weekend will give Florida State a tie atop the standings and the edge in the head-to-head over Florida.
“It’s going to take a near perfect game from us,” says Hamilton. “Ken Simmons really has his boys in good form this year and we know how difficult it is to play down there in Gainesville. But for us we are going to have to make them play our style of rugby.”
Florida plays physical rugby, so the game may come down to which team is able to sway the tempo of the match and given the teams recent results against each other, only a few points may decide the winner and loser.
“We know we’ll have to really control the set pieces, build up some phases, and put our guys in places to succeed. It’s also going to take a great night off the tee, as most of the games have come down to a kick,” continued Hamilton in regards to what FSU needs to accomplish in order to defeat their rivals.
Looking past the rivalry and the recent eligibility controversy, it doesn’t take much to see that Florida State is building a strong program in Tallahassee. After years of being looked down upon, the south is coming on strong.
“It has been a slow process but the south rugby programs are finally starting to catch up with the rest of the country. We have seen a strong increase in high school players with experience and that has lead to all the college programs improving,” says Hamilton.
Florida State has come far since Mike Naylor took over the program in 2007 and turned a socially driven team, that was struggling in Division II, into a blossoming rugby power in the south. Naylor will stepped down from his position at the end of the 2010 season to accept an offer to move to New Zealand and join the faculty at Auckland University of Technology (AUT).
Naylor was replaced by Tim Russell who had been involved as an assistant with the team for some time.
“We have worked very hard to build a solid foundation over the past several years at FSU based on developing players the right way,” said Russell. “I plan to continue that development focus as we strive to be the top D1 rugby college in not just Florida and the South, but in the United States as a whole”
This season, Florida State has relied heavily on experienced players such as Team President Hamilton, a senior flyhalf as well as Kyle Klein (Sr/flanker), Dan Simmons (So/prop), and Steve Wertepny (So/fullback).
On campus, the Seminoles have seen a strong increase in attendance at their home games. The handful of friends on the sideline at their home games have been replaced by a couple hundred students at times. While traction has been made, the team still has a long way to go on campus and in a system that makes it difficult on the team’s aspirations.
“We as club treat ourselves like a division one NCAA sport, however they (administration) don’t always see it that way so it’s been something the club administration has worked hard to convey and get what we need,” added Hamilton.
Regardless of what happens in their upcoming battle against Florida or the playoffs beyond that point, Florida State has some big decisions to make regarding their future. With the new collegiate restructure, the South Division I competition is on the chopping block.
The University of Florida along with University of Georgia and South Carolina have already committed to the new Southeastern Rugby Conference leaving Florida State and Kennesaw State in need of new conferences.
Florida State is an ACC school and the Seminoles played in the Atlantic Coast 7’s tournament held last fall, so the Atlantic Coast Rugby League is one of the options that the team is considering.
In regards to FSU’s plans Hamilton said, “We have kept our options open and are currently contemplating them. An entrance into the SEC is also a possibly, but probably won’t be decided until after this season.”
Regardless of where Florida State ends up playing rugby in 2012, one thing is for certain… their rivalry with Florida is here to stay.
“This rivalry is something that no conferences changes could affect. The FSU vs. UF battle is a campus wide competition no matter what is at stake. We don’t like them; they don’t like us so whether we’re in the SEC or ACC the game will always be arguably the biggest one each season,” finished Hamilton.