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The fifth Penn Mutual Varsity Cup kicks off this weekend, with six games in Maryland, California, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, New York and South Carolina constituting the opening round. Waiting in the wings are top seeds Cal and Central Washington, who’ve received first-round byes. Below is a breakdown of each match-up, as well as some historical data on the participating teams.
Dartmouth @ Clemson
This is an intriguing match-up because neither team seems to be an odds-on favorite. Both have been active this spring with mixed results. It’s also a match-up of two of the best funded teams in the nation. Dartmouth, while still technically a club, has an alumni base to envy and all the trimmings of a varsity program. Rugby was recently moved under the Clemson athletic department, putting its full weight behind a budding program.
Dartmouth is 2-1 this semester, beating UCLA 22-17 and UC San Diego 64-5 while on tour in Southern California. The Big Green also dropped a 29-0 game to Navy last month. UCLA is down this year, but that’s still a good win for Dartmouth, while the lopsided nature of the loss to Navy is worrisome, though that was its first game of the spring.
Clemson is 2-4 this semester, having beaten South Carolina (48-10) and Davenport (34-33). Both are good wins, especially that over Davenport. But some of the losses, 71-5 at Lindenwood, 73-23 against Arkansas State and 81-12 versus Life, are equally alarming. The lone common opponent between Clemson and Dartmouth this semester is Navy. The Tigers, which have significantly more time outdoors than the Big Green, fell to the Midshipmen by five – so 24 points better than Dartmouth.
Winner gets to host Cal in the second round.
Final Fours: 3 (‘88, ‘87, ‘86 [D1AA in ‘12, ‘13])
2016: W 30-25 over Penn State, L 75-15 to BYU
2015: L 23-22 to Navy
2014: W 59-24 over Clemson, L 70-15 to BYU
2013: L 32-0 to Navy
Final Fours: 0
2016: L 50-0 to Arkansas State
2015: W 26-22 over Arkansas State, L 24-23 to Navy
2014: L 59-24 to Dartmouth
Notre Dame @ Army
Barring a massive upset, this game seems destined to be heavily in Army’s favor. History favors Army, which boasts 12 final fours all-time and won in a walk over Oklahoma in last year’s first round before giving Cal a legitimate scare in the second. Notre Dame, on the other hand, has never won a game in the Varsity Cup, and only one game has been decided by fewer than three scores.
The Black Knights come in on the back of a second-place run in the Rugby East last fall, during which they accrued a 7-1 record. Army’s only loss came at the hands of Penn State, the eventual conference champion. This spring the Black Knights are 2-1, putting UCLA down 45-19 and rival Navy 24-18 accompanying a narrow loss (22-15) to San Diego State.
Notre Dame is 2-3 this spring, with lopsided losses against Indiana and Arizona. The Fighting Irish also lost a competitive game against Grand Canyon, with the lone wins coming big over Bethel (62-7) and more honestly over Louisville (25-12). In the fall, the Irish beat Michigan, Cincinnati, Dayton, Grand Valley State and Northern Illinois, losing big to Bowling Green and competitively to Davenport and Navy. In all fairness, Notre Dame is in just its first season under Justin Hickey, who established the Davenport program and put the building blocks in place for Clemson’s rise. With time, expect the Irish to close the gap.
Winner faces the victor between Penn State and Harvard.
Final Fours: 0
2016: L 57-3 to Navy
2015: L 22-18 to Texas
2014: L 55-33 to Texas
2013: L 77-0 to Cal
Final Fours: 12 (’10, ’09, ’03, ’02, ’01, ’00, ’99, ’95, ’92, ’91, ’90, ’89)
2016: W 55-10 over Oklahoma, L 41-29 to Cal
Penn State @ Harvard
History doesn’t paint an accurate picture with this one. Harvard has four final-four appearances and a national title. Penn State has 10 final-four appearances and not titles, but the Nittany Lions are the odds on favorite.
The Crimson are led by Mike Diamontopolous, a high achieving coach formerly of Boston’s Super League side. Like Notre Dame, Harvard is on the rise, reaching the D1AA postseason last spring and earning a winning record in the Ivy League in the fall. On top of Harvard’s on-field development, the field itself is huge news. Roberto A. Mignone field is a brand-new field turf facility that meets World Rugby’s standards for synthetic pitches and has permanent bleachers that can seat 900. Even if the game gets ugly this weekend, it will be played in a great setting.
Penn State is a bit in flux, having run the Rugby East table in the fall before letting go of head coach Blake Burdette, who was axed thanks to an off-the-field incident. Enter James Willocks, former Dartmouth and current All-American assistant, who is 2-1 this spring against American collegiate competition. The Nittany Lions beat Navy 60-36 in February, lost to Indiana by 10 in March and pounded Bucknell last weekend. Between those games they beat New York Old Blue and won all three matches during their tour of Scotland.
Winner draws the winner between Notre Dame and Army in the second round.
Final Fours: 10 (’07, ’06, ’01, ’99, ’97, ’96, ’95, ’94, ’92, ’89)
2016: L 30-25 to Dartmouth
National Titles: 1 (1984)
Final Fours: 4 (’03, ’93, ’84, ’81 [D1AA in ‘11])
Boston College @ Navy
Tough to call this game, as Boston College went undefeated in the fall, earning notable wins over Dartmouth and New England College, while also tying American International College to share the East Coast conference title. The Eagles, however, were a late addition to the Varsity Cup, giving them just a few weeks to prepare and very little field time.
Navy has been active all spring, though, winning a couple of matches against men’s clubs, beating Dartmouth 29-0 and Clemson 15-10. The Midshipmen dropped two against Penn State (60-36) and Army (24-18). Though there is a common opponent in Dartmouth, little can be gleaned from comparing scores, as BC beat them by five way back in September and Navy beat the Big Green a month ago.
Winner hosts Central Washington in the second round.
Final Fours: 0
Final Fours: 13 (’15, ’14, ’13, ’07, ’05, ’04, ’01, ‘99, ‘98, ’96, ’94. ’83, ’80)
2016: W 57-3 over Notre Dame, L 31-24 to Arkansas State
2015: W 23-22 over Dartmouth, W 24-23 over Clemson, L 57-15 to Cal
2014: W 64-10 over Texas, L 60-0 to BYU
2013: W 32-0 over Dartmouth, L 74-6 to Cal
Utah Valley @ UCLA
Utah Valley is another late addition to the Varsity Cup. The Wolverines have long been one of the more talented teams in the country, with a pipeline to one of the best pools of high school rugby talent around. UVU is usually a Polynesian-heavy team with a mix of pace and power, though a lack of consistent coaching has seen the Wolverines ebb and flow through the years.
UVU is certainly talented enough to keep pace with the Bruins, evidenced by a 154-14 win over UNLV last month, a competitive 36-13 loss to Utah and a 41-28 win over BYU’s second side, but fitness and organization could see the Wolverines unravel if UCLA can withstand the first hour and remain within reach.
While the Wolverines are on the rise, the Bruins are having a bit of a down season, having finished 2-3 and in fourth place in the PAC. They did show fight in competitive losses to Army and Dartmouth.
Winner will face the victor between Oklahoma and Arkansas State in the second round.
Final Fours: 0 (D2 in ’12, ’08)
Final Fours: 0
2016: L 44-15 to Central Washington
2015: W 32-12 over Air Force, L 45-16 to BYU
2014: W 77-12 over Oklahoma, L 41-0 to Cal
2013: L 69-8 to BYU
Arkansas State @ Oklahoma
Oklahoma has never won a Varsity Cup match, and it seems rather unlikely the Sooners buck that trend in 2017. Arkansas State and Oklahoma met in the fall, with the Red Wolves trouncing OU 69-3. OU will be hosting this time, but the seven-hour drive from Jonesboro to Norman isn’t likely to be a difference maker.
Oklahoma is undergoing a rebuilding phase as coach Doug Neubauer tries to revive a proud club with a lot of tradition. The Sooners went 5-3 in Red River conference play between the fall and spring, finishing third amongst nine teams. Unfortunately, none of their wins came against teams in the same class as A-State.
The Red Wolves are 5-1-1 against collegiate competition this spring, losing 52-0 to Life in February and tying Lindenwood a month ago. They’ve racked up wins over Arkansas, LSU, Indiana, Davenport and Clemson along the way. The Red Wolves lost to Davenport by three in the autumn but flipped that into a 14-point win this semester, displaying considerable improvement. The most resounding result was the latest one, a 76-24 defeat of Clemson in South Carolina. If the Red Wolves continue this upward trend, they could push for an appearance in the final.
National Championships: USA Rugby 7s in ’12, ‘13
Final Fours: 6 (’16, ’14, ’13, ’12, ’11, ’10 [D2 in ’01, ’04, ‘07])
2016: W 50-0 over Clemson, W 31-24 over Navy, L 68-20 to BYU
2015: L 26-22 to Clemson
Final Fours: 0
2016: L 55-10 to Army
2015: Forfeit to Utah
2014: L 77-12 to UCLA