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With a nice big fat head of steam, the juggernauts of D1-A’s Mid-South will thump loudly into one another this coming weekend.
If there is a college rugby game to look forward to, this is it. Arkansas State is 3-0, averaging 89 points scored and 9 against. Life University if 3-0, averaging 75 points scored and 5 against. You get the idea.
This past weekend, Life beat a hard-working and technically solid Notre Dame team 80-7. It wasn’t that Notre Dame was bad – certainly not. The Irish knew what they wanted to do and had good fundamentals. But Life was bigger, faster, and exceptionally fit.
Joe Cowley scored three tries and 20 points with his boot. The game was played in Charlotte, NC at the Charlotte Ruggerfest, and Cowley is a former Charlotte Catholic product. Perhaps the homecoming inspired him, but certainly Cowley had a monster game.
“Joe Cowley is really coming into his own,” said Life Head Coach Dan Payne. “It was nice to have him have such a performance in front of his hometown family and friends.”
All very nice, but there was more to it than that. The Life back row of Cam Dolan, Andrew McNeil and Paul Bester was very powerful and Cornelius Dirksen at scrumhalf was on top of the ball at all times. The Life performance was perhaps predicated on physical domination, but they also executed well.
“Zach Walker had two tries on the night,” added Payne. “[He’s been] playing at tighthead prop this season for us and has been getting better and better each week and has been working very hard in all aspects around the field. I was especially happy we were able to get all 8 of our Charlotte area players onto the field.”
Arkansas State, meanwhile defeated Oklahoma 96-7, and did it thanks to three simple things – making the gain line, getting quick ball, and dominating the scrums.
The word “dominate” gets overused in rugby. Any scrum that had a good day can get characterized as dominant. However, Arkansas dominated in the scrum, shoving a determined but overmatched Oklahoma front eight back on their heels and back over the ball.
The other two go hand in hand. In the game against the Sooners, in the first 13 phases where ASU got ball, they made or passed the gain line 12 times. The one time they missed was because of a poor pass that forced a runner to backpedal before taking the ball up. Even then, he was stopped only a meter short of the gain line.
“It’s been a two- or three-year buildup where we’ve been trying to get the backs to keep their depth and run on to the ball,” said Arkansas State Head Coach Matt Huckaby. “It sounds like a simple thing but it’s hard to not overrun the ball carrier. Second, we’ve been working really hard in the weight room with our strength and conditioning. A few years ago we lost to Cal and until you play them you don’t realize how strong and fit they were. So we’ve been working on that. I was pleased with our ability to make the gain line.”
Making the gain line is also caused by how quickly the Red Wolves make the ball available, and like Life’s Dirksen, scrumhalf Yoshi Abe is quick to the breakdown and quick to get the ball to his receivers.
Huckaby also gives a lot of credit to backs coach and former Cal All American Alex Houser, who has the backs working well and has allowed Huckaby to concentrate on the scrum.
At the same time, often those gains stopped because of ball-handling errors.
“We have been looking at ball retention and we made a couple of silly mistakes,” said Huckaby. “We play a fast-tempo game, but we know against Life an attacking move is not always going to end up in a try. We’d like it to, but we know we have to be patient and make smart decisions.”
So, yes, this is the thunderous meeting of two physical, hard-running teams that have dominated their games, so far. After so many lopsided victories, the players have to be looking forward to a few pre-game jitters.
“We are here to play the best and see how we measure up,” said Huckaby. “We have the luxury now to play one of the best, and I put Life right there. It’s neat that we don’t have to get on a plane to do it anymore, and can just take a bus. The guys from the two teams get along really well, and Dan Payne and I get along really well. We look forward to it, and I know both teams will want to establish their territory and put the pieces together right off the bat.”
“Everybody looks forward to games like these,” added Payne. “You try to say you play up to your standard, but what pushes the development of players is when they have a big challenge in front of them like this game. The guys are excited. I consider Matt a good friend and we’re going to try to give them something they’re not comfortable with and make sure they don’t get on the front foot. That will be a challenge.”