Rugby TRYumphs: Men’s team finishes 15s season with win over Lehigh

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Emily Cohen

With a cardboard cut out version of their senior captain looking on from the sidelines, the Lafayette Men’s Rugby Club defeated Lehigh this past weekend in the annual rivalry matchup 28-14.

A key member of the 2015-16 team, fly-half Chris Nelsen was absent from Saturday’s game due to graduate school visits, leaving underclassmen to step into his place. Four tries from four different players later, the Leopards walked away victorious with cardboard Nelsen lifted proudly over their heads.

“The Lehigh-Lafayette game was fantastic this year and it’s becoming a tradition just like all of the other traditional rivalry games with Lehigh-Lafayette football and basketball,” head coach Dan Benedict said.

In a game in which all 25-plus dressed members of the squad played, Lafayette battled for the victory until the final minutes. According to junior president Matt Festa and sophomore Russell Tanaka, junior Dan McLaughlin’s try late in the first half was a turning point.

“We’re pretty used to scoring quicker, and so it was really back and forth,” said Festa, a flanker.

“I thought they were going to score a few times — we held them on defense. I thought we were going to score a few times, and they held us. And then Dan worked his way in and we got on the board.”

“It really put some wind in our sails going into halftime,” added Tanaka, a scrum half.

The game remained close until sophomore Cam Bartlett’s 50-yard run pushed Lafayette ahead by 14 in the second half.

“Cam scoring kind of put the nail in the coffin, so that was a huge play,” Tanaka said.

Tanaka and senior Colton Mitchell each added tries of their own as well. Tanaka also tallied all of the team’s conversions on the day.

“It wasn’t the best game, but it was definitely very entertaining on and off the field,” Tanaka said.

“The fans…said they had a blast watching even though none of them knew what was going on.”

After a highly successful fall season, Lafayette prepared for their annual friendly matchup against Lehigh, the last of their 15s games for this school year. With this win, the team heads into their spring 7s season optimistically.

According to Festa, the fall season features six regular season 15 vs.15 games. Lafayette went 7-1 last semester, ultimately defeated by Bucknell in the semifinals of the Eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Union (EPRU) post-season tournament.

The Leopards will start their spring season this weekend with a national-qualifying tournament at Franklin and Marshall.

With a win at F&M, the team could qualify for the National Small College Rugby Union (NSCRO) national tournament for the third year in a row. There will be 12 teams competing at the qualifier, and the winner will join another seven teams from around the country at Talen Energy Stadium (formerly known as PPL Park) in Chester, Pa. at the end of May.

Last year, Lafayette finished sixth in the nation after being defeated by New Mexico Highlands, the ultimate national champion and a team with a Netflix documentary dedicated to them.

On April 16, the team will compete in another national qualifier, but on a higher level. This tournament includes larger schools, such as Lehigh University. The Leopards will wrap up their regular spring tournaments at Kutztown University on April 23 where they will compete against even larger schools such as Drexel, Villanova and UPenn.

With their final season of the year starting, underclassmen and coaches reflect on senior influence, especially that of Nelsen and flanker Will Ritchings. Ritchings has served as treasurer in past years, and Nelsen has served as the 15s and 7s team captain for the past two years.

According to Festa and Tanaka, rugby captains have a unique responsibility, making multiple difficult decisions on the field when penalties occur.

“It’s important in rugby to have a captain who’s both somebody to help improve everyone, but also to make informed decisions,” Festa said. “We’re very fortunate that Chris Nelsen has been a very positive influence with multiple aspects of being captain.”

Festa and Tanaka also credit Ritchings’ consistency and dedication off the field to the team’s continued success, as well as the work of Benedict and assistant coach John Graeffe.

“They’ve both put so much time and effort into our program which we’ve really benefited from,” Festa said. “They have many years of experience with the sport and they’re always very enthusiastic for practice and games.”

As their spring season begins, Lafayette remains hopeful and looks to continue their winning ways this weekend with a win at the F&M national qualifier.