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The game of the week, regardless of division, is Davenport traveling to Life. The Panthers are two-time reigning DI-AA National Champions, and Life is the top-ranked team in the country.
There are a lot of comparisons to be drawn – both teams’ head coaches, Dan Payne in Georgia and Kruger Van Biljon in Michigan, are young and extremely talented, both programs are varsity with scholarships to work with, both give most of those scholarships to high school graduates in their local region, both teams have players who will be Eagles some day, and both programs are very young.
They’ve taken different paths, though. Life played its first season in the College Premier Division, the current DI-A, while Davenport had to play a year of friendlies before joining DI-AA. Life lost in the CPD quarterfinals in 2011 and the DI-A semifinals in 2012. Davenport won the 2011 and 2012 DI-AA National Championships.
While the Panthers were collecting trophies at a lower division, the Running Eagles were knocking on the door in the country’s top division, perhaps a tad jealous of the hardware Davenport was adding to its trophy case.
“Credit to Davenport, they’ve been able to say, whatever you put after it, they’ve been National Champions,” said Payne, “and when you’re able to say that, it’s something to be really proud of and it’s something that brings a lot of notoriety, so we’re excited to be able to play a team that’s been able to achieve what they’ve been able to achieve.”
During those seasons full of lopsided wins, Davenport was being grilled about when they’d move up to DI-A.
“The question was always, ‘When are we going to play Life, when are we going to play these guys?’,” said Van Biljon.
“And I think the guys are excited to step up to the next level and see how competitive we can be. I think it’s a long time coming, and hopefully we’ve got all the firepower to be competitive with these guys. Life’s reputation and seeing them [play Utah at the LVI], it’s a massive step to climb, but I’m confident in our guys and you can only get better if you play the best.”
The Panthers will get plenty of game time against the best this season, as they play in the leanest and meanest conference in the history of American college rugby. Davenport, Life and Arkansas State form the Mid-South, and they play each other twice each. Saturday is the first match in a rigorous six-game series.
Davenport has its full arsenal of players to work with, while Life is still awaiting the return of Cam Dolan from injury. (He’s due back in April.) Life has managed to play three games this spring against good college competition, beating Utah, Tennessee and Delaware, while Davenport has had just one game, against Louisville’s men’s club. The Running Eagles have been in class all week, while the Panthers have been on a vacation from snow in Kentucky before making their way to Georgia.
So preparation has been a mixed bag for both teams, and Saturday’s game will most likely be decided by match-ups.
For Life, the guy to contain is all-everything flyhalf JP Eloff. He’s been in National Team camps, won numerous awards, MVP trophies and All American honors.
“You have to be wary of their threat and wary of what he can do,” said Payne of Eloff. “I think the thing that’s helped our guys prepare for a guy like Eloff is having to play a guy like [Arkansas State flyhalf] Pat Sullivan, who is strong in the tackle, or some of the other guys we’ve had to play.”
The job of tackling Eloff will be shared by several players, like openside flanker Andrew McNeil and opposing standoff Colton Cariaga. But much of the duty will fall on scrumhalf Jake McFadden’s shoulders.
“Jake keeps trying to remind me all the time that he wants to be a flanker. The minute we can get somebody to run the show like he can at halfback, we would easily move him to flanker,” said Payne. “He doesn’t shy away from tackling or contact whatsoever, which is nice, especially off the scrum to just release him and push and go put pressure on 10.”
The guy Van Biljon is most concerned with is Life No. 8 Glen Maricelli.
“The guy just runs sweet, sweet lines. We have to make sure that we watch him wherever he goes. He’s going to try to run into the gap at full speed. He’s one of their biggest threats, from my perspective,” said Van Biljon.
“We’re going to have to try to shut them down on the outside. They’ve got speed, they’ve got skills, but I think the biggest threat will come from [Maricelli]. He played hooker last year, but he runs very hard lines. Once you can stop those lines, I think we can be competitive.”
Bringing down Maricelli off of scrums, and often in the loose, will be Davenport No. 7 Ryan Hargraves. He and Maricelli have a similar build and motor – they are both shorter than the prototypical players at their positions, but they punch above their weight in contact and have extremely high work rates.
Life hopes to webcast Saturday’s clash, but that effort could be stymied by technical difficulties. If the game’s available for viewing online, RUGBYMag will publish the details. Either way, check back here for in-depth updates Saturday.