LAFAYETTE, Colo. – The conference champions from the Big Ten and Rugby East will collide Saturday, March 25 in a Canterbury D1A Rugby top-10 clash when Penn State travels to Bloomington, IN to take on Indiana.
Following their fall competitions, both Indiana and Penn State have worked diligently to put together a difficult slate of games during the spring semester. Since February, the Nittanty Lions have played Navy, Old Blue of New York and three matches during their tour of Scotland over Spring Break. Impressively enough, the Rugby East Champions won all five fixtures.
Saturday’s game against Penn State is just one of several highly competitive matches the Hoosiers have set forth for themselves this semester. After easily taking care of the Indianapolis Impalas in February, Indiana went down to Jonesboro, AR where it let an early lead slip away against No. 7 Arkansas State.
“It proved to us that we didn’t have the match fitness we need to have for games,” Indiana Head Coach Sopa Enari said of the loss to the Red Wolves. “So, we’ve been working hard on that – trying to get to that point – and the game against Penn State is part of the pathway to achieving that.”
Now back from spring break, the Big Ten Champions will host Penn State before they make trips to face Notre Dame and Notre Dame College in April. They’ve also received a large boost since the Feb. 25 defeat to Arkansas State. All-American center Bryce Campbell has returned to campus after starring for the Eagles during their run to the 2017 Americas Rugby Championship title.
“Bryce’s return to the team has brought a lot of energy, there’s no question about that,” Enari said of his prized midfielder. “His leadership is huge and he’s a very good influence on the players.”
Starting each game for the Men’s National Team during the five-match tour has only enhanced Campbell’s already impressive skill set. Enari and his staff were eager to hear of Campbell’s experiences with the Eagles, and have even implemented some aspects of the training he went through while on tour.
“His return has been very positive, his teammates have rallied around that and it makes our practices very active, very constructive and makes everyone want to work hard,” Enari pointed out.
Even with the five-time capped Campbell, the Hoosiers will have their hands full when Penn State rolls to town. Even a midseason coaching change hasn’t slowed the Nittany Lions’ momentum. Blake Burdette led them to an undefeated conference record in the fall, and new head coach James Willocks has them off to a 5-0 start in 2017 since the coaching change.
“This is a very tight knit squad with some really talented players, and even more importantly men of great character,” Willocks said of the team.
Willocks thanks the entire Penn State and State College, PA community for making his transition as smooth as possible, especially captains Mike Eife and Malcolm May.
“Along with those names, we have a large number of leaders that ensure that we are all accountable to each other,” added Willocks. “These guys push day-in and day-out to be the best versions of themselves – on and off the field.”
Willocks, formerly an assistant at Dartmouth College, made good timing in his arrival to the Penn State campus. A month after his tenure began, the team departed for a three-game tour in Europe.
“Scotland was great in helping us be versatile in our play. Conditions were trying and limited, so it forced us to adapt and play smart rugby,” Willocks explained. “It was great to see us adapt and really think about the game, and use the conditions to our favor.”
Even on the road, the Nittany Lions might be the favorites in Saturday’s contest based on last year’s results between the two sides. A year ago, it was Indiana that accommodated Penn State with a trip to its campus, but was never able to get within striking distance, falling 48-32. The 2016 fixture, however, was during Indiana’s spring break and the team made the trip to Pennsylvania without its full compliment of players, and their set piece did not function well as a result. The Hoosiers like their chances much better this season with Campbell back in the saddle, but still recognize the challenging task ahead of them.
“They just came back from Scotland, so they’ll be in good shape in terms of game fitness,” Enari noted. “They are solid up front, so we’ll need to be solid at the breakdown and take care of our possessions.”
Although new to the D1A Rugby competition, Willocks has had time to take a close look at Indiana and is impressed at what he’s seen.
“Indiana is a very well-coached side with a number of very talented players. They have some great ball carriers up front and then some real firepower out wide,” complimented Willocks. “We are excited by the challenge and looking forward to the trip.”