Rugby 7s Preview: Who'll Top the Pools?

 

"America's toughest sport comes to America's toughest city" is the USA Sevens slogan for the Philadelphia College Rugby Championship tournament. This weekend, the tourney debuts in what the organizers expect to be its permanent home at PPL Park (last year’s CRC was contested in Columbus, Ohio).

 

CRC is a brand name owned by USA Sevens, not a competition run by USA Rugby, the national sanctioning organization for Cal’s fifteen-a-side regular season. 

 

While die-hard fans have trekked to Philly (weather in the City of Brotherly Love is a lot, um, lovelier than the Bay Area’s now), homebound enthusiasts will have plenty of opportunity to catch the action on TV. NBC, together with its Versus and Universal Sports cable outlets, will beam 14 hours of CRC coverage over the course of the two-day competition.

 

Cal fans, of course, will be keen to see their Bears attempt to run the table and grab the championship that was denied them in last-year’s 26-31 sudden death loss to Utah.

 

This year’s tournament looks likely to propel the Bears and the Utes into a rematch.

There are seven new names in the 16-side field, including some newbies to the sevens format. Boston College, Central Washington, LSU, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Temple and Texas replace Arizona State, Bowling Green, Florida, Harvard, Indiana, San Diego State and Tennessee from last year’s CRC.

 

As much as possible, tournament organizers put pools together so that traditional rivalry matches could be played. Pool A features an Ohio State/Penn State contest; in Pool C, Army challenges Navy and Pool D is highlighted by a tussle between Oklahoma and Texas (you can, I suppose, make a case for Notre Dame vs. Boston College in Pool B as a Catholic school rival match).

 

Eleven sides are drawn from College Premier Division schools. The remainder are Division 1 campuses, though some, like Temple, have just been bumped up from Division 2.

 

Cal’s (nationally ranked #1 in the CPD) the top seed in Pool A and will face Ohio State (#23), LSU (#20) and Penn State (#11) Saturday.

 

For the Bears to get a shot at revenge, Utah (#4) will have to get by Boston College (unranked D1), Dartmouth (#17) and Notre Dame (#18) in Pool B, then survive Sunday's knockout rounds.

 

Let’s see what the odds are, pool by pool, for a lead-up to a Cal-Utah rematch.

 

POOL A

 

CALIFORNIA

 

Cal’s fielding the most accomplished side in the tournament. Several players, including seniors Dustin Muhn, Connor Ring, Sean Gallinger, Blaine Scully, Derek Asbun, junior Danny Barrett and sophomore Seamus Kelly are returning CRC veterans.

 

Ring, Kelly, Muhn  and senior James Bailes, will make up Cal’s backline, which pushes Scully into the forwards to join Asbun and Barrrett.

 

Look for Scully, a 2009 and 2010 Eagles sevens member, to be a playmaker who’ll tot up the try tally along with speedsters Muhn and Kelly. 

 

Besides Gallinger, Cal’s depth chart includes juniors Alex Aronson James McTurk, sophomore Brendan Daly and  freshman Paul Bosco.

 

The Bears’ potent combination of power, speed and rugby IQ will be tough on pool competitors and likely account for a 3-0 sweep on Saturday, earning Cal a berth in Sunday’s championship quarterfinals.

 

PENN STATE

 

Penn State has devoted more time to sevens practice this season and it shows. The Nittany Lions took home the hardware from the Subaru 7s tournament in late May, putting down CRC-bound North Carolina and Navy in a tune-up the big show this weekend..

 

Chris Saint and Joe Baker ought to be Penn State's playmakers on Saturday. 

 

The Lions, who went 5-2 in CPD play this year, wound up third in the very competitive Rugby East Conference. They’ll be looking to outdo Ohio State on Saturday for a shot at the knockout rounds. Odds for a 2-1 pool record are better than 50 percent.

 

OHIO STATE

 

Besides Cal, the Buckeyes’ biggest challenge will be Penn State. But Ohio State has some powerful mojo built up after winning a tune-up sevens tournament of its own, putting away Penn State 17-7 in Larrimer Cup pool play, then knocking out Notre Dame in the finals.

 

Flyhalf Nate Ebner will be the fellow to watch for breakaway runs and smothering tackles. Captained by Chad Cochran, who moves to the front row for the CRC, Ohio State will likely need to regain some footing after its morning encounter with Cal.

 

The ensuing face-to-face against the Lions could go either way, but if the Buckeyes are unnerved, Penn State could make capital -- or tries -- out of it.

 

It’s a toss-up between Penn State and Ohio State for the pool’s second-place finish.

 

LOUISIANA STATE

 

LSU is looking to make a name for itself on the rugby pitch. That job’s been made more difficult by the departure of coach Jeff Reuther. Julie McCoy, a former USA Women’s 7s coach, now helms the Tigers, but has only had a week or two to shape the squad.

 

LSU has potential. Seniors Adam Ducoing and Robert Johns will steer the action on the pitch but they’ll likely face stiff opposition in their opener against Penn State.

 

The Tigers may gain a lot of experience from their debut in the CRC, but they’ll be fighting the odds to do better than 0-3.   

 

POOL B

 

BOSTON COLLEGE

 

Another CRC debutant, Boston College, a Division 1 side in the regular season, is coached by Boston Irish flanker Jason Lett. Lett, known for his tenacity, will rely upon his sevens veterans Alex Brown, Stewart Harris, Ed Hynes and Andrew Wolf to anchor the Eagle effort.

 

Unranked in the fifteen-aside season, BC has high aspirations, but the odds for breaks going their way are long. Will it be an 0-3 outing, or can BC wrest an upset? The Boston school’s best shot at a win is against Notre Dame.

 

DARTMOUTH

 

There’s a hole in the Dartmouth line-up now that scrumhalf Derek Fish is out with an ACL tear. Big Green’s not without other strengths, though. All-American Paul Jarvis will set the pace for the forwards, while the backline is populated with gridiron transplants Tanner Scott and Steve Morris.

 

Dartmouth will be hard to beat.  Hard for everyone except Utah, that is. Look for Big Green to post a 2-1 record.

 

NOTRE DAME

 

The Irish return to CRC hoping to better their 2010 performance as a more experienced and poised side. Sevens training has been ongoing all year, even in the midst of Notre Dame’s CPD season.

 

Irish rugby is a young program with big ambitions. This year’s roster includes several CRC veterans including All-American forward Nick Civetta, scrumhalf/flyhalf Andy O’Connor and center Andrew Mullen. 

 

Still, Notre Dame’s likely to emerge from pool play at 1-2.

UTAH

 

While the threat of power runner Thretton Palamo has shifted to the Utah gridiron, playmaker Don Pati returns to the CRC, along with flanker Danny James,winger Blake Miller and the Lauti brothers.

 

What more can be said? Utah is a favorite to finish pool play undefeated.

 

POOL C

 

ARMY

 

The Black Knights return to the CRC seeking to get over the hump and snag the victory that eluded them last year. Invigorated by a 7-0 record and an first-place finish in the CPD’s Rugby East Conference, Army now wants to stamp the sevens format with its brand.

 

Playmaking should come from returning flyhalf/center Will Holder and center/winger Ben Leatigaga.  

 

The match against Navy ought to be a corker, but Army has to first deal with Central Washington who aims to take away a blue ribbon in pool play. The Cadets look like they could get through to the championship rounds with a 2-1 record.

 

CENTRAL WASHINGTON

 

CWU played aggressively in the CPD season, coming in fourth in the Pacific Conference. The Wildcats have notched some impressive results in the sevens format as well, winning the Northwest Collegiate 7s and the Las Vegas CRC Qualifier .

 

 

Injuries, however, have since beset the Wildcats. Alex Reher, Andrew Nelson and Paul Smith, all members of the Las Vegas squad, have been sidelined for Philadelphia. Luckily, Las Vegas vets, Tim Stanfill and Kellen Gordon are fit and anxious to rack up tries.

 

With Stanfill at the wing and Gordon able to play forward or in the backline, the Wildcats will be a formidable presence on the pitch.

 

A 3-0 finish isn’t out of the question.

 

NAVY

 

Navy returns to the CRC after an uneven debut in 2010. On the pitch, Sean Rohrs’ running skills and the playmaking of Matt Arnsberger will be the keys to the Midshipmen’s success. The relative youth of the rest of the Navy side could be a liability, though.

 

Not that Navy hasn’t had time to refine its sevens skills since closing out the CPD season with a 6-1 record. The Middies have played in three tournaments, most recently taking second in the Subaru 7s.

Odds favor a 1-2 finish.

 


NORTH CAROLINA

 

North Carolina is an unknown quantity in CRC play, but isn't a sevens novice. UNC beat seven sides to finish second in the Atlantic Coast Invitational 7s.  

 

Team captain Alex Lee is the Tar Heel to watch in the open field along with Evan Rose. Those talents, however, may not be enough to overcome the rest of the pool.

 

0-3 wouldn’t be a surprise.  

 

POOL D

 

ARIZONA

 

Aside from being the only Pool D side that’s returning to the CRC, Arizona is the favorite because of scrumhalf Peter Tiberio, an Eagle sevens veteran.

 

The Wildcats have other talents to draw upon as well, including CRC-seasoned Brett Thomson and Michael Getzler.  

Arizona could sweep the pool.

 

OKLAHOMA

 

The Sooners chances in their CRC debut got considerably worse when captain Taylor Mokate, capped for an Eagle 7s tour, was injured during the CPD season.

 

There’ll still be threats on the pitch in the form of Kelton Miller and Arryn Wilkinson, both well-seasoned ball carriers with impressive running skills.

 

The relative inexperience of OU’s gridiron crossovers, however, will be a factor when the Sooners line up against Arizona, but not so much against the rest of the pool. Look for OU to end Saturday at 2-1.

 

TEMPLE

 

Temple’s likely to be blinded by the national spotlight thrown on them in the CRC. The hometown favorite in Philadelphia doesn’t have much sevens experience

 

The Owls boast one of the best talents in the tournament, Gareth Jones, who would have been a likely Eagle if he hadn’t opted for a semester abroad to play in Ireland.

 

The teams ascent to the national stage has been swift. In 2010, Temple advanced to the fifteen-aside Division 2 finals, then was elevated to Division 1 for the 2011 season. The Owls then marched to the Round of 16. before bowing out.

 

For all its grittiness and hard work, Temple is still likely to come up empty handed in pool play.   

  

TEXAS

 

The Longhorns fared well in the Las Vegas CRC qualifier, going 5-1 against middling opponents. Texas has been working on the sevens format more intensely than Oklahoma and Temple, but aren’t as athletic as the Sooners or Wildcats.

 

The 'Horns went undefeated to win the Fiesta 7s, then followed with a win at the Easter 7s.

 

Captain Stephen Mahoney is the Longhorn to watch, along with scrumhalf Tod Mullen, who, if healthy, will be a playmaker.


Figure Texas to wind up 1-2 on Saturday.

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