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The Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship starts tomorrow, as Cal looks to navigate the toughest field in the competition’s history to claim an astonishing fifth-straight tournament title. Everyone else is gunning to knock the Golden Bears off. Here’s my take on how it might all play out.
Though Cal is the returning champion, the Bears are playing with heavy hearts. Just a few weeks ago, lock Robert Paylor was partially paralyzed in a maul in the final of the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup. Since then, the program has spearheaded a fundraising campaign to support the Paylor family and Robert’s rehabilitation. To date, over $600,000 has been raised toward a $1 million goal.
Still, with that fight ongoing, the Bears will take the field this weekend with the plan of winning every game, as usual. They haven't lost in the CRC since the 2012 semifinals. Russell Webb and Anthony Salaber are both fantastic talents, and the Bears have plenty of other play makers like Patrick Barrientes, who has scored five tries at the CRC, and juniors Jake Goena and William Fuller.
Seven members of Cal’s traveling squad are making their CRC debuts, but no team has veteran leadership like Cal. Webb is arguably the best player in the tournament, and he’ll orchestrate a well-drilled attack. Salaber is a massive unit and a mismatch for every team at 6’5”.
That said, the team to beat this weekend may well be Lindenwood. The Lions have pitched a perfect 12-0 record in winning the two best 7s tournaments of the year so far in the Las Vegas Invitational and the USA Rugby championships, which boasted fields of 28 and 16, respectively. Through that stretch, they’ve conceded just five tries, only allowing two scores in a game once, while pitching eight shutouts. They’ve racked up 432 points and conceded just 29. Those are astonishing numbers, and they’ve been compiled against a pretty good collection of teams.
No side in the country is as fast from 1-12 as Lindenwood. Every member of the squad is capable of creating something from nothing. Nick Feakes has been a revelation, Mickey Bateman and Gio Falco are known line breakers. Michael Baska, formerly of Arkansas State, is as smooth a player as there is in the tournament. Cristian Rodriguez is obscenely quick-footed. Lindenwood is incredibly deep.
Arkansas State is going to be good. The Red Wolves might have the fastest player in the tournament in Neil Maestri, and the Red Wolves will have better team speed than most everyone, but not Lindenwood.
Life is also going to be very good – Harley Wheeler, Harley Davidson, Cody Melphy and Mitch Wilson combine as a pretty fast, skilled group. Life will still not be as fast as Lindenwood.
Kutztown has been just as dominant as Lindenwood over many more tournaments this spring, but none of them have had nearly the competition as the LVI or USA Rugby’s championships. Freshman phenom Dmontae Noble is a stud, Alex Faison-Donahoe is back. Vetekina Malafu would start for any team. Still, the Bears aren’t as fast, man-for-man, as Lindenwood.
Indiana is low-key talented. Arizona and UCLA are always game at the CRC. AIC has the wizardry of Jihad Khabir and an athletically stout team, but the Yellowjackets aren’t nearly as fast as Lindenwood.
St. Mary’s is very good. The Gaels have Dylan Audsley, who rivals Webb for the title of best player in the tournament, and the electric Aaron Matthews, but they were no match for the Lions in the final in Denver last week.
I’ve named all the teams who have a legitimate or dark horse chance to win it all – Cal, Arkansas State, Life, Kutztown, AIC, Indiana, Arizona, UCLA and St. Mary’s – and none of them can match the overall team speed of Lindenwood.
How, then, can someone beat the Lions? Win restarts, dominate possession, get big in the breakdowns when appropriate. If you let their fleet of Ferraris have the ball, tries will be scored. The one potential Achilles heel is height. A taller team with a good restart combination can cause Lindenwood some problems.
It’s these reasons I thought Clemson might be a good match-up for Lindenwood in the final of the Las Vegas Invitational – the Tigers have a number of tall, lanky, athletic players, and they were very good at holding onto the ball all tournament. Lindenwood smoked them 29-0.
This is 7s. A bounce of the ball here or there or a bad call can see a massive upset happen. But if Lindenwood stays on song and no one perfectly mixes together the ingredients of size, possession and winning restarts, the Lions are my pick to win it all.
Who are the teams best equipped to challenge Lindenwood? Cal certainly is. Webb has a great boot, and Salaber is a freak. Cal will have a size advantage on Lindenwood, so it will come down to whether or not it has the ability to impose it.
Life is probably the team that can come closest to matching Lindenwood’s speed. The Running Eagles also just have a mental edge over the Lions. Though they’ve never really played each other in 7s, they’ve met 12 times in 15s, and Life has won every single match.
Kutztown has played more 7s than anyone. The Golden Bears have a little size and a lot of speed. They’re tough and play like it. That game could be a fun one if it were to come to fruition.
AIC would be an interesting match-up. Josh Macy left AIC for Lindenwood last summer. His former assistant, Rob Guiry, is coaching AIC. Macy was never able to get AIC to the CRC, despite trying valiantly, and Guiry did, with players Macy recruited. That is a storyline worth following in and of itself. But AIC also has an indomitable will. The Yellowjackets aren’t a smooth, sleek team known for making the conventional decision play in and play out. But Khabir is the x-factor, and AIC just wants it really badly, and there are plenty of really strong, athletic guys on the side.
The table is set. There will be more close games than ever before. There will be better players showcased than ever before. There will be drama throughout all of the knockout rounds and point differential will be calculated closely all the way through pool play, as the race for the top eight is going to be tight. Tune in.