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The Penn Mutual Varsity Cup is down to four and the D1A playoffs to eight. We die-hard rugby fans wish we could mesh the professionalism and exposure of the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship with the inclusiveness of the D1A competition, and we’d all love to see Cal vs. Lindenwood, Central Washington vs. St. Mary’s, or Life vs. BYU. But that’s not the world in which we currently live.
It is what it is, and we have two competitions, filled with very good teams, which are going to crown national champions in the coming weeks. There’s a third competition – USA Rugby’s D1AA championships. Let’s have a look.
This is the most competitive year of the Varsity Cup’s four to date. Yes, there have been some monstrous blowouts, per usual, but those have happened in American college rugby playoffs since the beginning of American college rugby playoffs.
In the earlier rounds, Dartmouth upset Penn State by a try and Utah and Air Force played a barnburner. Great collegiate rugby playoff matches.
In the next round we saw Army push Cal to the brink. They led 22-7 at one point in the first half, and just when Cal took the lead in the second half and it looked like the Bears would be off to the races, the Black Knights scored again, taking a 29-28 advantage. Cal put it away with back-to-back tries in the last 15 minutes, but Army led for most of the encounter. Great collegiate rugby playoff match.
Also in the quarterfinals, Arkansas State beat Navy by a converted try, 31-24. The Red Wolves led 31-7 at one point, but Navy stormed back and got within a score, and then had possession with a chance to tie it as time ran down.
Another great match, and it resulted in a change in the usual semifinal match-ups. For the first time in its short history, the same four teams won’t contest the Varsity Cup semis. That alone means it’s more competitive. Think about this, as well, last year Arkansas State was bounced from the Varsity Cup by Clemson in the first round. A team that went winless in the competition last year is a win away from the final. Rare for that to happen in any incarnation of college rugby playoffs, ever.
The apple cart could be upset further this weekend, as Arkansas State goes up against BYU and Central Washington faces Cal. I watched what I consider the best Arkansas State team of all time play BYU to a seven point loss at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, and it really wasn’t quite that close. This time the Red Wolves have to play the Cougars at South Field in Provo, where they’ve never lost, so I fully expect a BYU victory.
The other game, however, could be up for grabs. Traditionally, it hasn’t been. Last year the Bears pasted the Wildcats by 44. But this time the score line against common opponents indicates it should be more competitive. Cal beat UCLA by 34 in February, and Central beat the Bruins by 29 in the first round of the Varsity Cup. Cal beat Utah by 27 in March, and the Wildcats beat the Utes by 53 last week.
Even if the final ends up being Cal against BYU for the fourth-straight time, and if the Bears and Cougars win comfortably in the semifinals, this is already the best Varsity Cup to date.
Pat's pick: BYU
Like the Varsity Cup, the D1A playoffs have been predictable since BYU, Cal, et al branched off, with Life and St. Mary’s meeting in every final thereafter. This year, though, could be when that changes.
The quarterfinals see Davenport play Life, Arizona go up against Utah, either Air Force or Cal Poly face St. Mary’s, and Lindenwood travel to Indiana. Every indication is that two of those games may be competitive, and the other two won’t.
Arizona fell by eight points to Utah in January. The Wildcats are missing some players who are with the U20s in Zimbabwe, but Utah has been playing a lot of rugby and may well be battling fatigue and attrition. So this one should be pretty close, though its winner is likely to be beaten badly in the semis.
Lindenwood versus Indiana also has a chance to be close. Indiana beat Davenport by a single point in October, and the Lions beat Davenport by six and three, respectively, in their two meetings this spring. Couple that with Lindenwood playing without center Lorenzo Thomas, flanker Malon Al-Jiboori and prop Chance Wenglewski, all of whom are in Zimbabwe, and the Lions could be in for a fight. They did also just hammer Wheeling Jesuit by 84 points, though, making them the favorites.
Davenport lost its two conference matches with Life by a combined score of 92-10, so there’s little reason to believe the Panthers have what it takes to knock off the Running Eagles in an elimination match.
The other quarterfinal could be a massacre. Because weather postponed last week’s first-round game between Cal Poly and Air Force, it will be made up Saturday in Moraga, Calif. at St. Mary’s. Then the winner plays the Gaels Sunday. It’s unlikely either will be up for an upset under those circumstances. Cal Poly lost to St. Mary’s by 40 earlier this season.
So, if chalk holds the semifinals will see Lindenwood meet St. Mary’s and Life play the winner of Arizona and Utah. The latter should be a blowout, and the former is a rematch of a nine-point St. Mary’s win over Lindenwood in January.
The Lions are capable of beating St. Mary’s, and they’re capable of upsetting Life should they get to the final. The Running Eagles won both regular season meetings, but the more recent of the two by just six points at the death. So there is a chance at a new D1A champion.
Pat's pick: Life
This competition is full of teams who play in the American Collegiate Rugby Championship in the fall, but not in a D1A conference, who are apparently not content with a simple bowl game, as well as teams from conferences who still play spring 15s.
UC Davis and Sacramento State, both of the Pacific West, beat USC and Long Beach, respectively, both of the Gold Coast, in the first round. The Gold Coast and Pacific West are spring-only 15s leagues. The Aggies and Hornets meet in the quarterfinals for a third time this season. The Aggies won 53-7 in the regular season and 42-20 in the conference title match.
Also playing at Davis are Arkansas and Utah State. Utah State advanced with a win over NCRC champion Washington, and the Razorbacks, champion of the Heart of America, were granted a bye. Arkansas’ conference plays a split 15s season that spans fall and spring.
This half of the bracket is a bit of a tossup. Davis is the obvious favorite over Sacramento State, but Utah State vs. Arkansas is anyone’s guess. Since Davis is the defending D1AA champion, and they slaughtered the Razorbacks by 51 in last year’s semifinal, we’ll give those Aggies the pole position to reach a second-straight national final.
The other half of the bracket all come from fall-playing conferences. James Madison, the Keystone champ, beat Ivy runner-up Harvard in the first round. East Coast champ AIC beat independent Delaware. Independent Notre Dame College beat MAC champ Bowling Green. And in a rematch of the fall conference title game, Middle Tennessee State beat South Independent rival Florida International.
AIC, NDC and Delaware competed in the ACRC Bowl Series in the fall, all of them winning competitive matches. In the quarterfinals at Bowling Green, James Madison faces AIC and NDC meets MTSU.
In the east, AIC and NDC, both varsity programs, are expected to win. There are no common opponents between these teams, so it’s tough to assign the tag of favorite, but I’m going to go with AIC. They simply have more experience playing better opponents, as this is NDC’s first season playing a DI slate.
In the final, UC Davis, nor anyone from the west, has recent experience playing or beating a team as talented as AIC.
Pat's pick: AIC