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Clemson held off a late surge from Wheeling Jesuit to win 35-31 in a non-conference clash on Saturday. The Tigers got out of the gate fast and responded every time Wheeling Jesuit punched back to hold on for the victory.
Although this game was dubbed a friendly, this game had a special meaning to both head coaches. Tal Bayer of Wheeling Jesuit and Steve Lynch of Clemson have been best of friends for the last 25 years. As roommates at Radford University they founded the Radford rugby program and served as the first President and Vice President of the organization. Years later, Radford one its first DII national title and both men have gone on to become the head coaches of two of the strongest division one programs in the country.
Clemson got out of the gate strong despite having very little time playing in the recent weeks. After playing Life, Navy, Air Force and South Carolina in a three-week span, the Tigers had a bit of a hiatus. Coupled with some field availability issues, the team struggled to maintain continuity over the break.
“I think coming off a bit of a break in matches….I think it was good for us…..Based on time off I was very happy with the performance because we have not had to have the opportunity to really play,” said Clemson coach Steve Lynch. “Something we have been struggling with over the last couple of weeks has been our ability to come out and put pressure on defenses early in the game which we were able to do today.”
The Tigers scored twice in the early stages and added a penalty minutes later. Wheeling found it’s footing after that point and the two teams battled for most of the first half. The West Virginia school slowly took over the first half, spending a lot of time in Clemson territory, and finally pounded one in to cut the lead to 17-5. That’s how the teams went into the break.
Clemson added a pair of penalties at the start of the second half and looked to be in the ascendancy. The Tigers were inside the Cardinals 22 meter line and looking to pound it in again, but a dropped pass resulted in the Cardinals scooping the ball and taking it 90 meters for the score. With the conversion, Clemson led 23-12.
Wheeling added another score several minutes later off of a kick ahead. The ball bounced fortuitously off of the turf into the hands of an oncoming Cardinal. A few offloads later the Cardinals were in for another score.
Clemson responded, though, through powerful forward play. The Tigers pick and drove near the Wheeling goal line and eventually powered in to extend the lead back to a two score game.
The Cardinals struck back once again though, through nifty hands. With 12 minutes to play, Clemson led 30-24. Wheeling kept fighting back but every time it got within one score, the Tigers responded. The big forward pack for Clemson pounded in a five-meter scrum with less than 10 minutes to play. Wheeling scored once more late in the game but could not muster another before time ran out.
“I think our fitness, or lack their of showed as the match wore on. I think we substituted well. Brought in some guys. We are a solid 25-27 team side. Selecting the 23 was very difficult. Our Varsity match and our JV match against a full Varsity program of Wheeling Jesuit and us as a club side, put us in a good position as far as depth and lets us know we are going down the right path,” added Lynch.
It turned out to be a very exciting match between two quality teams. Both coaches hope to make it a yearly tradition and turn it into a big rugby rivalry.
“This is the first installment of the Bragging Rights Cup. We are not sure what we are going to name it in the future but that is what we talked about,” said Lynch. “It was a nice tough win 35-31 for the first annual Bragging Rights Cup.”