The big weekend is here. The second annual Collegiate Rugby Championship kicks off this weekend in Philadelphia at PPL Park with sixteen top men’s collegiate sides in action over the course of the weekend. The University of Utah is in town, preparing to defend their 2010 CRC Title.
Set to be broadcast live on NBC both Saturday and Sunday, the CRC is quickly becoming one of the top events on the annual rugby calendar.
The two day event is played using the Olympic version of rugby, also knows as Rugby 7's. Last year, rugby was voted back into the Olympics and will make its debut at the 2016 Summer games. Rugby 7's is played with fewer participants than traditional rugby, although the game is played on the same sized field.
The extra space leads to a faster and higher scoring game loaded with action, speed, and big hits.
In addition to the men’s event, eight women’s teams are also on hand this season competing for the first-ever Women’s CRC title.
Here is a look at all sixteen teams in the men’s tournament.
POOL A PREVIEW
Fresh off winning the College Premier Division title in 15's, Cal looks to erase the sting of last year’s loss to Utah in the CRC Final. The big plus for Cal is that several players important to their effort in 2010 will be back. Dustin Muhn, Connor Ring, Danny Barrett, Sean Gallinger, Blaine Scully, Derek Asbun, Tom Rooke and Seamus Kelly are all set to return with an extra year of 7’s under their belts. The only issue that Cal may face is their lack of time spent on 7’s, having just completed their CPD campaign a couple weeks ago. Regardless, they come to Philadelphia as a massive favorite to take home the title.
LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY
LSU may have struggled this season in 15’s, but they have a squad filled with experienced 7’s players. The Tigers’ lineup is anchored by backs Adam Ducoing and Robert Johns, both of whom have made regular appearances for New Orleans RFC in 7’s over the years. New Orleans club star Jeff Reuther makes the switch from player to coach of the LSU 7’s team. Ducoing and Johns are joined by Jeff Levasseur and John deLaeumont, who both bring size and physicality as well as speed to the team.
Last year, Ohio State surprised some with their Top 8 finish in the CRC, but to those on the inside, it was expected. Despite struggles in the 15-man game, Ohio State has the ability to compete with most any team in 7’s. That was witnessed last year when they pushed eventual Champs Utah to the brink in pool play. This year, the Buckeyes return at least five players from last year’s squad. However, they will likely miss speedster Josh Holland, who was injured early in the 15s season and is not expect back for Philly. As with last season, Ohio State goes on the back of Nate Ebner, who was a dominant force in the 2010 CRC in his return to rugby after switching to play football at OSU.
PENN STATE UNIVERSITY
Penn State was among the biggest disappointments in the 2010 CRC. Their prowess in 15’s did not translate to 7’s, much to the chagrin of the Nittany Lions’ fans. With a little more time to build this year, Penn State is on the charge. This year, Penn State has been working on 7's since the beginning of their spring season, spending specific 7's practices each week to help keep the players attuned to the differences in the game. Look for Chris Saint and Joe Baker to lead from the front for PSU.
POOL A WRAP UP
Cal is head and shoulders above the rest of Pool A and should have no problem advancing to the Championship round. The battle is going to be for the 2nd place spot, which also advances to get a shot at the big prize. Ohio State, LSU, and Penn State are all on pretty even footing and should make for some great pool matchups tomorrow.
POOL B PREVIEW
Boston College has had more time than many of the CRC teams to prepare for the big 7's tournament, and they will need every bit of it to overcome their underdog title. Former USA flanker and Boston Irish Wolfhounds star Jason Lett has stepped in to coach the Boston College 7's players, and if a team is a reflection of its coach, BC will not stop playing full-out until the whistle goes. Lett also has some 7's-experienced players at his disposal. Stewart Harris has trained with OMBAC in San Diego, Alex Brown played 7's during the summer with White Plains, and both Ed Hynes and Andrew Wolf also have extensive experience with 7-a side.
Dartmouth reached the Final 8 at the 2010 CRC and look to do it again this season. This year, Dartmouth has All-Americans in forward Paul Jarvis and back Derek Fish anchoring the lineup. Dartmouth play a clinical and physical style of 7’s that could give teams problems in many ways. The Big Green have also added some cross-over athletes to the squad in football players T.J. Cameron and Steve Morris and former track runner Muhammed Adbul- Shakoor.
Coming off a surprisingly good inaugural CPS season, Notre Dame is feeling good about their second go at the CRC. The 2010 CRC was an excellent learning experience for the young squad.
“The players loved it,” said Head Coach Sean O’Leary. “They took on the challenge and wanted immediately to start the work to compete with the top teams.”
O’Leary has brought back former assistant coach Kruger van Biljon, now head coach at Davenport University, who, along with former USA star Phil Eloff, will run the 7's program. The Irish have been training specifically for the CRC all season, working on skills during regular training and playing 7s on Sundays. They will potentially return all but one player from last year and could be one of the sleeper teams in the tournament.
Led by the power running of Thretton Palamo and the shifty play making of Don Pati, the Utah team defeated Cal in overtime to take the 2010 CRC title. While there is plenty of talent in the Utah squad with Don Pati and Sione Lauti, the team will come and go with Palamo. If Palamo is freed from his football obligations to play this weekend, then Utah might just repeat. Utah is coached by USA 7’s veteran Jason Pye, and his experience shines through the way the squad plays the game.
POOL B WRAP UP
Whether or not Palamo suits up for the Utes, they are the favorite to win this pool. However, it isn’t going to be easy for them. Dartmouth and Notre Dame should present a formidable challenge. Boston College is the wild card in the event. The Dartmouth/Notre Dame clash should be a pivotal game in the pool.
POOL C PREVIEW
Army was supposed to be one of the front runners last year, with 7's Eagle Justin Hundley coaching alongside Army 15s coach Rich Pohlidal, but things didn’t go so well for the Black Knights, who were winless and one of the big disappointments of the 2010 CRC. Army was competitive in every match, but they were expected to dominate. Back are Will Holder, who made the 2010 All-Tournament team, and Ben Leatigaga who is a strong, talented runner and one of the top try scorers in the CPD this past spring. The tough run last season was a learning experience and may serve to motivate Army this time around.
Perhaps not the highest-profile college in the CRC, Central Washington may be the dark horse in the entire field. The only team to earn their way into the competition, the Wildcats won the inaugural Northwest Collegiate 7’s and the CRC qualifier in Las Vegas. Central Washington has some top notch talent in their lineup with Kellen Gordon, Tim Stanfill, and Sean Wanigasekara. The squad is fit and well coached by Bob Ford with an occasional assist by 7’s Legend Waisale Serevi. CWU has a defensive minded approach to 7’s, but still has the capability to put points on the board.
Another one of the big disappointments from the 2010 CRC, Navy, looks to bounce back this season and erase the memories of last season. Just as in 15’s, Navy plays a confrontational style of 7’s that hasn’t translated well to the more open game. Navy’s Head Coach for 7’s Mike Coyner, who played for the USA at 7’s, has been working to develop the 7’s skills through the season.
“Most of the players developed a much better idea of how we need to approach playing 7’s,” Coyner said. “That said, we’ve got a clean slate going into this year. We will have open tryouts and could come in with a completely different team than last year.”
Power-running Sean Rohrs and playmaker Matt Arnsberger could be two key cogs for Navy.
North Carolina comes to the CRC as the runners-up of the inaugural Atlantic Coast Invitational 7’s, which featured nine teams from schools whose traditional varsity sports compete in the ACC. UNC followed that up with a runner-up in the inaugural Atlantic Coast Rugby League season in 15’s. Labeled an underdog by many pundits, the Tar Heels know how to win games. The Tar Heels are a fit, diligent bunch led by Captain and ACRL Co-Player of the Year Alex Lee.
“As in our 15s game, we play a very expansive, quick game, and we rely on being a little bit fitter, faster and harder working than other teams,” said Lee, “and that will really translate to the larger, open field in 7s.”
North Carolina is coached by Pete Earsman, a New Zealander with over 20 years of 7’s experience. “I was playing and coaching 7’s at a high level before 7’s became what it is today, before anybody knew what we were doing out there,” Earsman said.
POOL C WRAP UP
Pool C is, without a doubt, the toughest pool in the CRC. Not one of the four teams stands out from the rest, and all four are capable of winning the pool. All four teams will have to be switched-on for every pool match or risk falling out of the race to reach the Quarterfinals. Pool C may literally be decided by mere points.
POOL D PREVIEW
Arizona was the surprise of the tournament in 2010, reaching the semifinals before falling to Cal. Coached by former 7’s Eagle Chris Kron, Arizona utilized the powerful play of Wildcat linebacker Brett Thompson. Arizona also has speedster Peter Tiberio, who has played for the national team. The impressive scrumhalf, injured during the inaugural CRC, played for Team USA in the Adelaide and Hong Kong legs of the IRB 7’s World Series, and he will undoubtedly be one of the most exciting players in the 2011 event.
The Sooners make their CRC debut, but will have to do so without the services of Taylor Mokate. Mokate, a national team player, tore his ACL early in the spring and will have to sit out the tournament. Oklahoma still has some firepower to keep their opponents honest. The Sooners boast former U20 Eagle Kelton Miller, who is also special teamer for the Sooners’ football team. Arryn Wilkinson is another one to watch for Oklahoma. Former Sooner Tyson Meek, who played in seven tournaments with the USA 7’s National Team, is back in Norman for law school and is coaching the 7’s team.
The home-town side, Temple, comes into the tournament as a sleeper, but may have one of the very best players in the entire tournament. Gareth Jones opted to spend the spring semester abroad in Ireland, where he played for Young Munster, and now he is back and ready to lead Temple. Not only is Jones representing the hometown team in Temple, but all of Philadelphia, as he grew up in Havertown, PA about 15 miles from PPL Park.
“When I heard the CRC was coming to Philly, I was ecstatic,” said Jones. “As a proud Philly native, I know the city is a perfect fit for the competition, and I am excited for players and supporters from across the country to experience the passionate atmosphere this area generates for all sporting events, especially rugby.”
The hardworking side plays hard defense and should get the home fans roaring at PPL Park.
Texas has jumped into the deep end with 7’s and may open some eyes in Philadelphia. Since the arrival of new 15’s coach Butch Neuenschwander, the Longhorns have created a serious 7’s program that, in time, should be competitive on a high level. Heading up the commitment to 7’s is Coach Jacob Liberman, who’s played for Atlantis, a high-level US-Based international touring side. At his side is former Team USA player Dallen Stanford. Texas is coming off a massive build-up to the CRC that has seen them play more 7’s than any other team in the field. The Longhorns competed in the CRC Qualifier tournament in Las Vegas in February and emerged as the plate champs, posting a 5-1 record. Texas also took on a very talented Texas A&M squad in a series of 7’s games, they won the Fiesta 7’s, and followed that up with a win at the Easter 7’s. The Longhorn to watch out for is Captain Stephen Mahoney.
POOL D WRAP UP
Another great pool to keep an eye one, Pool D has some good underlying stories to follow, and the competition in the pool should be heated. Arizona comes in as an early favorite in the pool, but Temple, Oklahoma, and Texas are right there with them. There is not a clear-cut favorite in this pool and that is exactly how 7’s should be. The big intangible in Pool D will be the home crowd and if they can spur Temple onto the Quarterfinals.
The 2011 Collegiate Rugby Championship kicks off tomorrow at PPL Park in Philadelphia. The second annual event is a run by USA Sevens LLC in conjunction with NBC. The tournament is set to be broadcast live on NBC and Versus all weekend.