Tackling the competition

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The men’s rugby team took home second place at the Collegiate Cup three weeks ago. [Photo Courtesy of Lafayette Rugby]

Nicholas Gates

A historic club takes to the national stage once again

Although they’re only allowed to pass backwards, the men’s rugby team is surging forward—all the way to the National Championship.

The Lafayette Men’s Rugby team, established in 1969, is one of the oldest club sports on campus. Recently, they have also been one of the most successful. The team, which is primarily made up of high school football players, recently qualified for the National Small College Rugby Organization’s National Tournament.

Unlike the fall season—when they play 80-minute games with 15 players on a team—the spring season consists of tournament style, 14-minute games, with only seven players per team. Although they had relative success in the fall season (placing third in their league), the team has exceled in the spring season.

The boys, a Division III team, are headed to their second consecutive National Championship as the 44th ranked collegiate rugby team in the entire country, including Division I schools.

Their championship birth came on the heels of a decisive qualifying tournament, during which Lafayette went 5-0. With the exception of a nail-biting semifinal in which PSU Berks took the Leopards to OT, they were able to outscore their opponents by a total of 165-46.

In the United States, the sport of rugby is quickly gaining traction. Sports moguls in various cities around the country are bidding for the rights to individual rugby franchises, similar to an NFL or MLB team. Rugby was also recently added to the list of Olympic sports.

At Lafayette, the sport is following a similar trend. It is becoming widely popular among students, with the men’s team carrying upwards of 35 players.

Much of the team’s success is generated by the unusual amount of underclassmen that start for the Leopards. Out of the 35 players on the roster, only five are upperclassmen. The remainder of the team is freshman and sophomores. In fact, the recipe for success that led to this year’s championship run came from a team made up of only two juniors.

“Through my three years on the team, I’ve seen huge improvements,” junior captain Chris Nelsen said.

Freshmen Russell Tanaka and Cam Bartlett are examples of these improvements, contributing to the team’s success this year.

“It’s fun to watch them play,” sophomore teammate Matt Festa said.

Despite the youthfulness of the squad, there is some championship experience among the players. After all, this is the team’s second straight season during which they have reached the National Championship. But the Leopards had a much tougher schedule this year, facing formidable opponents such as West Virginia and Kutztown.

“[Last year] we hadn’t been used to playing competition that strong,” Festa said. “Hopefully we will be much more prepared for Nationals this year.”

The Men’s Rugby team is gearing up for their Mar. 30 trip to Philadelphia with confidence and enthusiasm.

“I’ve never seen our team play quite as good as it has been recently,” Nelson said.