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The 2017 Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship boasts its best field yet. There are 24 teams representing 16 states. Four-time defending champion Cal is back, but the Golden Bears will be facing stiffer competition this year than ever before.
The elephant in the room when discussing the CRC is USA Rugby’s College 7s National Championships. The CRC was born in 2010 and has run every year since in an MLS stadium and with national television coverage. USA Rugby’s competition was created the following year, took a hiatus in 2014 when it switched from fall to spring so as to compete directly with the CRC, and will be streamed live this weekend on The Rugby Channel.
Throughout the five years the CRC and USA Rugby’s championships have coexisted, there has been debate about which tournament was better and complaints about the majority of the CRC’s participants being invited instead of being made to qualify, and even more so, there were complaints about how the CRC just wanted big-name schools and not necessarily the best rugby teams.
This year, the CRC’s eighth, there is no debate. Every program that’s ever won a CRC or USA Rugby’s championships, sans Utah, which played very little 7s in the 2016/2017 scholastic year but was somehow invited to partake in USA Rugby’s championships, is in play. St. Mary’s won USA Rugby’s tournament last year, Lindenwood won the year before, Arkansas State won in 2012 and 2013, and Life won in 2011. All are competing in the CRC, along with American International College, which finished second to St. Mary’s last year.
AIC, two years after losing out on CRC qualification by falling to Arkansas State in the Las Vegas Invitational final, won its way in via the Heart of America Classic, a new open qualifier held in Kansas City, Kan. in March. Lindenwood won its way in via the LVI. Lindenwood and AIC came through two massively competitive and widely respresentative tournaments to qualify. In total, 43 teams from 30 states and the District of Columbia competed in a CRC qualifier.
Ironically, the same year the CRC installed a second open qualifier, qualification for USA Rugby’s championships became a clandestine, secretive, opaque process. While USA Rugby has named the teams for its competition set for Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo., this weekend, it still hasn’t recognized or announced which tournaments were automatic qualifiers. Specifically, collegiate director Rich Cortez has evasively parried questions about the qualification process.
The result is a milk-toast field of teams. Plenty of fine programs in the mix, but it’s hard for an objective observer to see anyone but St. Mary’s and Lindenwood, both of whom are using USA Rugby’s event to tune-up for the CRC, as serious contenders.
It’s unclear right now how these two tournaments will coexist going forward, but the CRC is on solid footing while USA Rugby’s competition appears to be floundering. There has been talk of USA Rugby’s event acting as a qualifier for the CRC in the future. We’ll see if that comes to fruition.
In the meantime, four-time defending champion Cal is back in the CRC, but the Golden Bears will be facing stiffer competition this year than ever. In addition to UCLA, Kutztown, Life, Arkansas State and Arizona, all teams which have contended in recent years, St. Mary’s, Lindenwood and AIC will add new challenges. That’s eight very good teams, enough to make every knockout game capable of going either way. That’s never happened before with a collegiate 7s tournament on American soil, ever.
(Author's note: In the spirit of transparency, it must be said that the author is an employee of United World Sports, which owns and operates the CRC. He is also the coach of a team that participated in both CRC qualifiers and applied for but was not granted an at-large bid to USA Rugby's Championships.)