It's a relatively quiet Saturday for college rugby as the national play-offs loom.
The only score to report so far is from Friday night's Army-Navy Classic where the #24 midshipmen edged the #6 cadets 13-11 at Annapolis, Md.
Navy didn't make it to next week's national Round of 16, but Army did. The West Pointers are seeded fourth in the championship and will face 13th-seeded Tennessee on Saturday.
Cal remains the odds-on tournament favorite, but there are other interesting handicapping opportunities. At the request of DBD'ers atomsareenough, TwistNHook and solarise, herewith are presented some tidbits for the rugby-starved.
First off, the handicapping. Heading into the championship, here are the ARN/Down Under Endeavours national rankings (previous week's rankings in parentheses):
1 (1) California (22-0)
2 (2) Utah (17-2)
3 (3) BYU (11-2)
4 (4) San Diego State (10-3)
5 (5) Arkansas State (8-2)
6 (6) Army (11-3-1)
7 (7) St Mary’s (16-2)
8 (8) Penn State (13-2)
9 (9) Texas A&M (9-3)
10 (11) Arizona (9-3)
11 (12) LSU (11-3)
12 (13) Delaware (12-4)
13 (14) Tennessee (14-4)
14 (15) Bowling Green (14-3)
15 (16) Syracuse (8-2)
16 (20) UCLA (8-6)
17 (18) Florida (17-2)
18 (17) Central Washington (12-3)
19 (10) UC Davis (10-3)
20 (19) Kutztown (16-4)
21 (21) Colorado State (9-7)
22 (22) Colorado (12-6)
23 (23) Dartmouth (15-3)
24 (24) Navy (11-7)
25 (25) South Carolina (11-3-1)
Now for who's up in the first round of pool play...
(Feel free to argue, but show your work. You can use a #2 pencil, crayon or electrons).
Cal's up against UCLA. A fun rivalry match that hasn't been played in years. The Bears took on the Bruins at this year's UCLA-hosted Dennis Storer Pac-10 tournament, walking away with all the hardware. UCLA went down to the boys from Berkeley 76-0 in pool play and lost again in the finals, 28-3. Safe money's on Cal.
The LSU-Penn State pairing is bound to be a nail-biter, but momentum, overall depth and a track record against tougher opponents gives the edge to the Nittany Lions
In the BYU matchup against Delaware, it’s easy to think the Cougars will breeze through. No doubt, they’re a big, tough crowd. But they’re not as strong a side as last year and they’ve shown that they can succumb (BYU lost to Utah and Super League’s Denver Barbarians this year). The Blue Hens did push back on the Cougs in a Utah season opener, so the First Staters have already taken Utah's measure this year. Give the edge to BYU but it’s not likely to be a runaway.
The Arizona-Syracuse match? The moneyline favors the Wildcats. While Syracuse is formidable on defense, Arizona’s got big offensive juju now. The Tucson lads will be playing to their strengths in their first outing.
And now for something completely different ...
There are B-I-G changes being wrought in college rugby this year, mostly stemming from the disaffection felt by top-tier schools with USA Rugby, the national sanctioning organization. In a nutshell, many Division I schools feel they're not getting a return on their investment (USAR dues). Many coaches grouse that fees paid to USAR seem to get funneled into promoting non-college activities and funding wasteful overhead.
So, for the changes ...
First, a college sevens invitational tournament which will be -- GASP! -- televised nationally (live on NBC, June 5-6). Cal, along with Arizona, Arizona State, Army, Bowling Green, Dartmouth, Florida, Harvard, Indiana, Navy, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, San Diego State, Tennessee, and Utah will compete.
Second, a new United States Collegiate Rugby Association has been formed (headed, at least for now, by Craig Coates, the Texas A&M rugby coach) to focus exclusively on the development and marketing of college ball (take THAT, USAR!)
Third -- and for Cal, most important -- a College Premier League will be formed to raise the game's competitive bar.
Cal’s perennial rugby “problem” is that only a very few schools take the sport as seriously as Jack Clark & Co. Rugby's a varsity sport inside the Athletic Department at Cal. In lots of other places, it’s a recreational sport and undertaken with a “la-di-da” approach (maddeningly cancelling matches, not fielding reserve sides and such ad nauseum).
[Cal’s program most closely models that of the service academies – Army, Navy and Air Force (yes, the Coasties play rugby, too, but their academy is a smaller Division II school). At the academies, ruggers are on par with American football players. In rugby, as with all academy sports, scholarship is stressed. (Sound familar, alums?)]
To date, some 16 schools have opted in to the new league which is projected to kick off next spring.
They’re all top-flight sides, including Cal, Army, BYU, Utah, Arkansas State, San Diego State, Kutztown, Navy, Penn State, LSU, Texas A&M, Central Washington, Arizona, Dartmouth and Tennessee.
Utlimately, the league’s set to grow to 32 sides, equally divided into four regions of eight. The league’s goal is to get the best teams in each region to commit. The higher level of play, say the coaches who've opted in to the CPL, will make college rugby more attractive to potential sponsors.
A CPL season would consist of seven regional matches, starting in late February or early March, and an eight-team post-season (two per region). By season's end (sometime in May), the last two teams standing will have played a 10-game schedule. Also envisioned is a regional promotion/relegation mechanism that would allow up-and-comer teams to challenge the lowest-ranked sides for slots at the premier level.
Coaches of the teams opting in to the new league will likely meet over the summer to nail down the final team line-up, regional set-ups and a schedule.
So, how will schools fund their CPL participation?
Currently, college teams spend considerable money to schedule extra matches during the USAR season [Case in point: Cal played only five NorCal games for standings this year, but 17 self-scheduled "friendlies"]. CPL teams could use that same money to fund participation in the new venture.
CPL could run concurrently with USAR's existing college competition or as a stand-alone. Each CPL school would be free to decide if it wanted to play exclusively in the premier league (mixing in “friendlies” at will) or play in the league concurrently with the USAR collegiate union competition.
The coaches who’ve signed on to the CPL idea see a number of benefits for the sport and their schools:
"A premier competition is needed because it’s the natural progression of our sport as we continue down the road towards mainstream acceptance in the US sporting environment," opines Tennessee’s Marty Bradley.
"It provides top competition for teams involved, plus produces a marketable entity for our sport."
"Through greater exposure on college campuses, because of a well-run high performing league, it could increase our opportunities for such things as sponsorship and access to television," adds BYU’s David Smyth.
"These things in turn provide an avenue to the money that would help in legitimizing the sport of rugby on many college campuses."
Arizona's Dave Sitton says: "A new national collegiate competition is the best way to further expose, grow and market the sport. After decades of marginal success in the way of attracting sponsors and the very best athletes, a new structure that includes only college programs capable of championship caliber play, meaningful sponsorship, capable administration and dynamic promotion would advance our agenda."
"A new College Premier League is needed to showcase the best that college rugby can offer," comments Texas A&M’s Craig Coates." High quality games need to be played on a weekly basis to have any chance of creating a marketable product.
The consensus among the coaches is that a premier league makes the most sense to genuinely grow and market the game."
Summing it all up is Cal's Jack Clark: "Just a routine example of the business of collegiate sport. Universities, under full-ownership of their intellectual property and understanding what’s best for their students, are opting into a competition with fellow institutions.
Routine, because universities enter conference agreements, tournaments and competition alliances in every sport they sponsor. The intention here is a well-informed approach aimed at the growth of the top tier of US college rugby."
Is CPL worthy of damnation or praise?