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When fourth-ranked Navy takes on seventh-ranked Army Saturday at Warrior Field in West Point, N.Y., the narrative of top-10 teams meeting the day before the D1A playoff bracket is unveiled is a mere subplot. The headliner is that it’s Army versus Navy, future soldier against future soldier.
Within that, you have the dynamic of big brother Army dangling a four-game winning streak over little brother Navy’s head. And you have the leaders in the race to join the championship tier of collegiate rugby. Only seven programs claim membership to that exclusive club.
Cal won the inaugural championship in 1980. In 1984 Harvard gained admittance, then San Diego State in 1987 and Air Force in 1989. It’d take another 20 years for the fourth school to win a championship, as BYU toppled dynastic Cal for the first time in 2009. When the Varsity Cup split college rugby in 2013, Life and St. Mary’s joined the club.
Who will be next? If knocking on the door is any indication, probably either Army or Navy. Only the Midshipmen have reached more final fours without yielding a national title than the Black Knights. Together, they have 26 semifinal appearances.
No. 4 versus No. 7 indicates the winner has a legitimate shot at winning a national title, while history says otherwise. Some results this spring, though, suggest the gap between the title-havers and the have-nots is narrowing.
Army’s had a non-traditional spring, playing just one intercollegiate match so far, a 26-7 loss at Lindenwood. It was the Black Knights' first match of the semester, while the Lions had already logged five matches. Then they went overseas and played Sandhurst, Oxford and Swansea University, losing all three.
“At the end of the day we played some really challenging rugby,” said Army head coach Matt Sherman of the tour. “And going overseas was great to get exposed to a faster game, I would say a more intellectual game.”
Navy has been busy Stateside, ploughing into arguably the toughest stretch of games in the country. The Mids went on the road and upset Arkansas State, 19-14, before dropping squeakers to No. 2 Life, 19-18, and top-ranked St. Mary’s, 20-7. Navy has played four teams in the top six this season, posting a 1-3 record with two losses coming by a single score and the other by two.
“They are playing really well,” said Sherman of rival Navy. “I think they’ve been improving through the spring, and the results have shown it, even though they haven’t been wins necessarily against some for the best teams in the country.”
Navy’s meatgrinder of a schedule was part of head coach Gavin Hickie’s master plan. It’s why he entered the Midshipmen into the Mid-South conference, the nation’s toughest league by a mile.
“We want to be the best. We make no bones about wanting to be national champions. Of course we want that, but in order to do that, we’re going to have to get used to playing the best, Cal, Life, St. Mary’s, and the first thing we have to do in that is take away the fear,” said Hickie.
“The perception if you don’t play them is these guys are on a pedestal. They’re unbeatable. They’re amazing at rugby. You watch films, and they look that way. Then you play them, and the first or second time after you play them, the players realize they could have won that game. If you take away that fear as quickly as you can, and you come off the pitch in a tight result or a win and say, okay now we get it, we can play with these guys, and there’s ways to beat them, that’s the first step. That’s what we’ve tried to do this year.”
Turning close results into wins is easier said than done. Navy doesn’t have to look far for proof. A five-point loss to Army in 2016 became a six-point defeat in ’17 and a three-point loss last year. Despite Navy’s encouraging score lines this spring and the rankings, by virtue of head-to-head results, Army’s a nose in front in the chase for a championship.
The Black Knights are confident they’ll stay there, about as confident as the Mids are they’ll flip the script this year. The reality is, these teams and programs are similar, both on the surface and below.
Both fancy their scrums, which have been dominant at times this season. Both trend closer toward 10-man rugby than an expansive game, though neither likes being pigeonholed as doing so. Both have rosters full of hard, athletic men, but no single playmaker hogging the marquee. Saturday’s match will be the closest thing to playing a mirror as either team will come.
Both will adhere pretty strictly to playing in the attacking half. They’ll both target the other team’s lineout as an area they think they can exploit. Both will likely start conservatively, hoping to minimize mistakes. Eventually, the arm wrestle will likely be won by the team that either makes the fewest or has the best success rate the few times they go for the gap.
After the match, one group of alums, parents, fans, coaches and players will walk tall for a year, and the other will sulk in defeat and envy. But both teams will still be ranked in the top 10. Both will make the playoffs. And both will brace for another run at becoming the eighth program to ever win a national title. And everyone in attendance will be treated to one of the most special experiences American rugby offers.