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The six best teams in the country are still in the hunt for a National Championship. BYU and Cal will do battle in the Varsity Cup final for a third-straight year Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium in suburban Salt Lake City. At the same time, Davenport travels to St. Mary’s and Life hosts Lindenwood in the D1A semifinals. These teams are, without much dispute, the six best teams in the country.
Central Washington could lay claim to being in the discussion, but given there isn’t a direct result to link the Wildcats to the eastern teams, it will remain a claim. You have to go pretty far down the chain to make a connection – CWU lost to BYU by 27, BYU beat St. Mary’s twice by an average of 6.5 points, St. Mary’s beat Army by 28, Army lost to Davenport by 26.
The common thread for five of the six teams left? They’re all varsity, or depending on your definition of varsity, pretty close to it.
The outlier is St. Mary’s, which is led by volunteer coaches Tim O’Brien and Johnny Everett. The Gaels don’t have scholarships to work with, or at least if they do it's not public knowledge, and they’re not swimming in school funds or showered with varsity amenities. At least, again, not to public knowledge. Even then, judging by the move back into the school’s soccer stadium (the inclusion of rugby in the scoreboard art is a nice touch) indicates perhaps the Gaels are enjoying a little more clout on campus than they used to.
Cal is varsity, with a pair of former National Team coaches on staff and access to athletic facilities and support unparalleled in college rugby.
BYU has a heightened status of some kind, and the Cougars have a paid head coach and access to varsity facilities. They have a sports information person, athletic trainers and they play on an intercollegiate field.
Davenport, Lindenwood and Life are all in similar boats, with paid coaches, though Davenport’s is part-time. They all have significant scholarship money to give out, and they are all funded like varsity teams in other ways.
Central Washington and Army, which were eliminated just one round ago, are fully varsity programs.
This is the way of American college rugby right now. Wheeling Jesuit, American International College and Notre Dame College are funded programs that have risen up the ranks quicker than traditional club programs before them. The latter lost a coach reportedly because it wasn’t willing to make a part-time coaching position full-time, but NDC is doling out real scholarship money.
There are other programs enjoying varying levels of administrative support, like Penn State and Arkansas State, but the difference between varsity or quasi-varsity programs and traditional college clubs is stratifying.
On one hand, it’s a phenomenal movement – more administrative, admissions, financial and logistical support in the game of rugby is definitely a good thing. On another hand, it’s creating a competitive disparity.
This is not to make any grand statement about the state of the game, to spark a debate about how competitive an all-encompassing postseason would be or who's to blame for there not being one, but to simply point out that five of the top six teams in the country this year, and seven of the top eight, are either varsity or essentially varsity, and that’s unlikely to change a whole lot going forward.