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Saturday the All-Americans march out for the lone time this year to face off against Oxford University at Talen Energy Stadium in suburban Philadelphia. The game is the third of its kind in recent years, as the All-Americans had typically gone on an international tour every summer.
Then in 2014 they played Oxford’s rival, Cambridge, and the Ontario Blues on home soil. In 2015 they convened and competed internally in California. Last year they went on a three-match tour of Australia, winning two. And this year it’s the one-off against Oxford. In 2014 they swept the Light Blues, winning the first contest 27-15 and the second 22-12.
Oxford and Cambridge have met in an annual derby known as the Varsity Match every year dating back to 1872, breaking only for the World Wars. Countless distinguished internationals have contested the famous match. In 2014, after falling to the All-Americans, Cambridge lost to Oxford, which had won six on the trot until 2016.
There is a deep connection between Oxford, Cambridge and American rugby. For starters, former USA U20 Connor Kearns is currently playing for Oxford, and he helped organize this test. As well, there’s been a decades-old tradition of distinguished Americans playing for both teams. Most recently, Cal’s Derek Asbun and Jason Law suited up for Oxford, while Dartmouth’s Nate Brakeley played for Cambridge. Former Harvard offensive lineman and Eagle prop Will Johnson suited up for Oxford, among many other Americans who've played for one or the other.
And maybe the most famous of all is Pete Dawkins, the 1958 Heisman Trophy winner from West Point who earned a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford, where he was credited with bringing the overhead pass to rugby. Every June, the Pete Dawkins Trophy is played for at Talen Energy Stadium during the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship.
So Oxford is a fitting opponent and Talen Energy a fitting stage. But the All-Americans usually operate in the summer, not when school is in session, which has been a hurdle to clear for the program, given its players and most of its staff is made up of those who are in their collegiate seasons right now.
“To my pleasant surprise we’ve got almost everybody that we’ve wanted. Collegiate coaches around the country have been very accepting of this fixture and have released guys without any hassle,” said head coach Gavin Hickie, who also coaches at the Naval Academy.
“That’s been fantastic. That goes across the board throughout the whole country… It’s not ideal, but at the same time it’s been a very pleasant surprise getting access to who we wanted to get to.”
Two players named to the original squad to face Oxford have become unavailable – Life’s Cody Melphy and Indiana’s Bryce Campbell. They could have very conceivably made up Hickie’s midfield. But the coach isn’t discouraged by their absence, and he seems upbeat about the team’s preparation, albeit a short one.
The team assembled Sunday, and before kickoff Saturday, they’ll have squeezed together eight practices. Central Washington’s Jeremy Lenaerts has impressed, though Hickie thinks he might end up in the front row at the next level (he plays back row mostly for CWU), as has Brian McKeller from Penn State and Kevin Sullivan from Cal. The coaching staff is also excited about Notre Dame College’s Marcus Tupuola.
“I’m pretty happy with the individual quality within the squad, and our job as coaches is to make sure that we jell in time to play what could be a very good Oxford side,” said Hickie.
“We’ve got Matt Jensen, an Eagle. This time last year he was a collegiate All-American for the first time in his career. To see these guys progressing, see them developing and particularly guys who’ve gone onto higher honors, and come back to this level with a smile on their face and leading the way in performing is extremely satisfying.”
The clash between the All-Americans and Blues of Oxford kicks off at 2:15 ET and will be streamed live on The Rugby Channel.