BOULDER, Colo. – Big Ten Universities rugby has clear separation in talent across the landscape of the conference. When it comes to the conference’s elite, there are three teams that have yet to lose a game this season, and all have expectations on making it to the Championship game.
Those teams are No. 5 Indiana, a side fighting to prove its name belongs with the best in D1A after not competing in the playoffs the last two season; No. 12 Wisconsin, returning Big Ten Champion which hasn’t put up fewer than 68 points this season; and No. 14 Ohio State, which has beaten every team in the Big Ten the last two seasons except for Indiana and Wisconsin, and is seeking redemption after losing to the Badgers in the Big Ten Championship game last season.
The Buckeyes will have a shot at redemption when they face the Badgers in Columbus Saturday. These two sides played each other twice last season, once in the regular season and once for the Big Ten Championship, and Wisconsin was able to take both matches. Both sides return many key players, including Wisconsin’s Crass Brothers and Ohio State’s JoJo Eramo. This match very well might determine who plays in the Championship game in late November.
“It’s hard to say that the game last year doesn’t leave a bad taste in our mouths when it comes to Badger rugby,” said Eramo. “However, the past is the past, and we are focused on making it to the title game once again this year. Therefore, our main goal of victory isn’t necessarily for revenge, but rather for us to continue in our journey to reach our team goal of being Big Ten champs.”
Wisconsin opened the season against an Iowa side that finished third in the Big Ten last season, and ran over the Hawkeyes, 87-0. Hunter Crass had four tries before being subbed out in the 60th minute, and Matoko Noudehou scored five conversions and a try for the Badgers. They came back the next week to score 88 points on Minnesota, with Crass and Noudehou dominating again with the added contribution of fly half Tyler Crass and full back Daniel Pettay.
“I believe our strength is in the back line,” said Wisconsin Head Coach Nic Tyson. “We expanded our offense a little bit so the forwards have more decision-making and play-making ability. This lets the backs do what they do best: swing the ball wide. Our forwards have been performing adequately so far, but I hope that they can take a step forward this weekend.”
The Badgers will need every facet of the team working together if they want to head back to Madison, Wisc., with a win. The Buckeyes may not have put up 80-plus points on opponents like Wisconsin has, but they have been able to win by impressive margins against both Michigan State and Illinois.
Both of these sides have great talent in the backfield, which is the biggest strength for both teams, but this match is going to come down to defense. Wisconsin will have more than Eramo to focus on as No. 8 Santino Cua returns from injury, a player that can provide a boost on both offense and defense. The Badgers’ front line will also be tested throughout the match, since Ohio State has been able to remain efficient even with some injuries in the pack.
“Our success this year, so far, has come from a team that has been playing together for about three years now,” said Wisconsin No. 8 Hunter Crass. “Some even more, and the chemistry has been improving and clicking better and better every season.”
As for Ohio State, eyes will be out for the Crass brothers.
“Hunter and Tyler are two very good rugby players with a lot of athleticism, as well as high rugby skills and a high IQ of the game,” said Eramo. “The key to stopping these two, as well as the rest of the Badger back line, would be a great defense and to make our tackles.
“Also, we have some great offensive threats on our side of the field, as well, with a very talented back line, and a good offense is the best defense. So, if we can keep the ball in the hands of our playmakers, I think we can really do something special this Saturday.”
This match will feature fast rugby played for the entire 80 minutes. These two back lines are two of the best in the Big Ten, and each side’s defense will sway which way the decision will go. With the heavy Big Ten Championship implications this match holds, expect neither team to hold anything back.