BOULDER, Colo. – It’s mid-December, and college rugby players are off the pitch and bunkered in campus libraries prepping for final exams. With college rugby activities all but over in 2015, there are at least NCAA football bowl games to which rugby players and fans can look forward.
Twenty-one D1A Rugby teams’ football programs will be competing in a bowl game over the next month, meaning that more than half of the D1A schools have a football team in postseason, and more than a quarter of all bowl teams represent D1A programs. There are even two bowl games pitting D1A teams against one another in the Dec. 19 New Mexico Bowl featuring Arizona and New Mexico, as well as the Texas Bowl where Texas Tech and LSU will attempt to end their seasons with wins.
With so many ties between D1A Rugby and major college football programs, it begs the question: Just how invested are college rugby players in their schools’ football teams?
Obviously, the vast majority of college football games take place on a day dedicated to rugby – Saturday. This weekend logjam makes it nearly impossible for college rugby players to attend a full slate of football home games.
“Football is a huge part of the culture around State College,” said Penn State scrum half Jimmy Ronan. “The atmosphere around campus on game day is incredible. Unfortunately, we miss a few of the afternoon home games due to rugby games. We usually all go together and watch the second half after we finish up our own game.”
Fellow Nittany Lion back-liner and junior Architectural Engineering student Mike Eife began playing football at five years old.
“My first year at Penn State I bought season tickets and went to every game I could attend, but I missed a few due to matches,” the Penn State captain explained. “After that, I decided not to buy season tickets because my rugby schedule conflicted too much with the football home games, but I bought tickets to big games like homecoming.”
As for predictions for Penn State’s Jan. 2 bowl game against Georgia, Ronan surprisingly favors the Bulldogs, while Rugby East Player of the Year and Nittany Lion flanker Malcolm May predicts a 24-21 win for Penn State.
Eife’s breakdown of the TaxSlayer Bowl is a bit more analytical.
“Whoever can establish the run first will have a better chance at winning the game,” Eife dictated. “Georgia is a run-first team, and [running back] Sony Michel is having a great year. However, Penn State has one of the best run-stopping front sevens in the nation.”
Another Big Ten school with a massive tradition on the gridiron is Ohio State. Aiming for a fourth consecutive 12-plus-win season when it faces Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, the Buckeye rugby team does all it can to follow football games during its fall Big Ten Universities Conference season.
“If we’re playing away games, they are usually scheduled so we can at least listen to them on the radio on the ride home,” said All-BTU representative and Ohio State scrum half Taylor Hurff.
Like Eife did at Penn State, Hurff purchased season tickets his freshman year on campus, but now refrains as rugby takes up more and more of his time.
“At Ohio State, football Saturdays are the most fun days of the semester,” described Hurff, who preferred rugby dating back to high school, but was the school’s placekicker and punter his senior year. “We get to watch or listen to most of the games, but we don’t get the full experience most of the time.”
With Ohio State’s lone loss coming to third-ranked Michigan State, Hurff is confident in the Buckeyes’ chances against the Fighting Irish.
“I’m saying it’ll be 42-28 Bucks, with [Ezekiel] Zeke [Elliot] notching three TDs.”
Hurff’s 14-point spread is more than Las Vegas is willing to give Ohio State, but not quite as confident as fellow Buckeye and former state champion running back Jojo Eramo’s prediction.
“Ohio State versus who?” BTU’s try-leader coyly teased Notre Dame. “I predict a 31-point victory for the Buckeyes.”
In the Pac-12, Arizona won’t reach 10 wins as it did last year, but the Wildcats still did enough to earn an invite to the New Mexico Bowl. Within the school’s rugby program, second-year coach Sean Duffy doesn’t want the football season to go completely unnoticed by his players.
“Our coach values that we are committed rugby players, but he also knows that it’s important to have the college experience,” said forwards captain and former Westview High School (San Diego, Calif.) defensive end Cesar Davila.
A strong 2014-15 season earned Davila Most Valuable Forward recognition, which, in turn, led him to this year’s captaincy. However, his rugby-first mentality may have played a part, as well.
“I don’t feel that missing a football game due to rugby activities was a problem mainly because I preferred lifting, practicing, or playing in a match over going to a home game,” the eight man stated. “That being said, if I was able to attend, I would try my best to go.”
The Red River Conference will see 19 league matches played in 2016. Oklahoma, in an attempt to draw more spectators to its games, scheduled two home matches in the fall that were also on the same day as home Sooner football games.
Scotland-born fly half David Wallace scored 31 of Oklahoma’s 76 points after two games, but is just getting caught up to speed with Americans’ fanaticism over football. It hasn’t taken long, however, for Wallace to notice his campus’ love for football spill over to rugby.
“It definitely brought more people to the games,” Wallace recalled of his October and November fixtures. “One of the main spots for tailgating looks onto our rugby pitch, and lots of people came over to see what was going on.”
The Oklahoma sports double-headers were especially unique because the two Sooner sports teams even shared the same opponents on the day.
“I can’t speak for anyone on the TCU or Texas Tech squads, but the OU players definitely enjoyed it,” exclaimed Wallace. “The fact that we won both games, in football and in rugby, made it all the better.”