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For all of the confusion and weirdness in college rugby, it would appear we’re actually turning a corner in terms of competitiveness. This season has seemingly seen more close scores than ever before, with upsets and near upsets popping up all over the place.
Here’s a quick history of the monotonous dominance of college rugby. From 1980-2010, the years when there was only one undisputed national champion crowned every year, Cal won 25 titles, Air Force three and Harvard, San Diego State and BYU one a piece. For Cal, that’s more national championships than Tennessee (8) and UConn (9) women’s basketball and Alabama football (4) combined over the same span.
That kind of dominance, while incredibly impressive and a testament to the unfathomable amount of hard work put in by hundreds of Cal rugby men, made college rugby a bit farcical. There was Cal, the best team in the land year in and year out, and there was everybody else. Why even play the games?
Since the inception of D1A in 2011 and the Varsity Cup in 2013, BYU has claimed three championships, and Cal, Life and St. Mary’s one a piece. If the Varsity Cup and D1A teams had played in the same postseason those years, there’s a reasonable case to be made that BYU would have won three undisputed titles in as many years and four in six – a miniature Cal run, if you will.
But BYU split its regular season series with St. Mary’s last year, and even though the Cougars swept the Gaels this spring, the games were incredibly close, like so many college contests have been during the 2014/2015 season.
In total, there have been 28 games won by two converted tries or less which included at least one ranked team in DI college rugby, and we still have two months left to play. That kind of number was unheard of in years past, especially when you consider four of the top five (Central Washington is the outlier) and eight of the top 10 are included. No. nine Utah isn't included, because it's been feast or famine for the Utes. They either get blown out by BYU, Cal or St. Mary's, or they blow out the likes of UCLA and Arizona.
The transitive scores theory (we lost to so-and-so by nine, and they beat the other guys by 10, so we should beat the other guys) has been proven inaccurate many, many times over. Still, it provides worthwhile data.
Let’s take Cal, for example. Cal only beat UCLA by six, and UCLA lost to Arizona State by two. So, the Sun Devils should be able to play Cal to a one-score result, right? The Bears beat ASU 100-17, so no, not really. But, it is reasonable to conclude that if Cal has a really bad day and Arizona State its best, the Sun Devils could conceivably come within a try. That was unthinkable for much of the last 35 years.
Extrapolate the transitive scores theory out even further, using results from this season, to include results from, say, three or four games, and you get really crazy stuff, like the notion that Middlebury could actually beat Army. Army beat Iona by just seven, Boston College beat Iona by 10, and Middlebury beat BC by five.
The results decided by 14 points or less that included Top 25 teams from this season are compiled below. I say all this not to make a cockamamie claim that Slippery Rock is really as good as BYU, but to provide a little bit of evidence to support my hypothesis that the gaps are closing in college rugby. And that, I think we can all agree, is a very good thing.
It would be easy to attribute the overall improvement to the burgeoning varsity movement, with Life, Lindenwood, Davenport, Wheeling Jesuit and AIC all among the nation's best. But that would be a mischaracterization.
St. Mary's has been a name program in college rugby for many, many years, and Tim O'Brien and Johnny Everett have been coaching there for some time. It's only in the last handful of years, though, that through their increased efforts the Gaels have become such a powerhouse. BYU is on a similar wavelength. The university started pumping more support into the program in the late aughts, and now the Cougars stand atop the mountin.
Arkansas State, like St. Mary's, is another elite program built by the hands of volunteer coaches, at first. Scott Stewart has put about a decade of work into getting UCLA to where it can play Cal to within a converted try. Central Washington made the unprecedented switch from club to varsity via the efforts of Tony Pacheco and Bob Ford. And don't forget about Kutztown and Clemson.
College rugby will eventually be the bellcow of the sport in the United States, with scholarship programs in nearly, if not all, 50 states and dozens, if not hundreds, of paid coaches across the country. Though we're not there yet, we're as close as we've ever been. And it's mighty fun to watch and take part in.
|1) BYU||32-28 St. Mary's, 35-26 St. Mary's|
|2) Cal||18-12 UCLA|
|3) Life||28-25 Davenport, 25-21 Lindenwood|
|4) St. Mary's||28-32 BYU, 26-35|
|5) Central Washington|
|6) Army||19-17 AFA, 19-15 PSU, 36-22 Bonas, 26-19 Iona, 34-30 Kutz, 34-29 WJU, 28-16 UMass|
|7) Davenport||37-26 Bowling Green, 16-7 Arkansas State, 7-3 Lindenwood, 25-28 Life, 16-20 Lindenwood|
|8) Arkansas State||7-16 Davenport|
|10) Kutztown||36-28 Penn State, 30-34 Army,|
|11) Lindenwood||3-7 Davenport, 21-25 Life, 20-16 Davenport|
|12) Colorado State||29-21 Arizona|
|13) Air Force||38-26 Navy, 17-19 Army|
|14) Navy||36-28 Air Force, 19-25 Wheeling Jesuit, 39-25 Clemson|
|15) Clemson||25-39 Navy, 27-20 Virginia Tech|
|16) Wheeling Jesuit||29-34 Army, 14-25 Michigan, 25-19 Navy|
|17) Arizona State||27-25 UCLA|
|18) UCLA||12-18 Cal, 31-29 Arizona, 25-27 Arizona State|
|19) Penn State||15-19 Army, 28-36 Kutztown|
|20) AIC||46-40 Bowling Green, 31-17 Boston College|
|21) Cal Poly|
|24) Bowling Green||40-46 AIC|