BOULDER, Colo. – A 3-0 start for the cadets of West Point have fans of the Men’s Army Rugby program believing it has what it takes to defend its Rugby East title. The Black Knights’ next obstacle in their mission to win a second consecutive conference title will be the team’s stiffest thus far – a road match against No. 8 Penn State.
“Playing on the road is definitely different and more challenging than playing at home, and we will spend some time discussing how we can best approach that to avoid a drop in performance,” said Matt Sherman, who hits the road with his Brothers for the first time as head coach of West Point.
“It’s something we are aware of, will address, and I’m confident the team will be able to handle.”
The cautious game-planning surrounding Friday night’s match in State College, Pa., is not only due to Army playing its first road game of the season, but because Penn State is a very good side.
After a lackluster opening 45 minutes against St. Bonaventure in the Nittany Lions’ conference opener, Penn State has begun to hit its stride. Since their Sept. 12 win over the Bonnies, the Nittany Lions picked up a quality road win against No. 9 Wheeling Jesuit, and, most recently, smashed West Virginia, 79-5, on the Mountaineers’ home turf.
The dominant defensive performance last week, which saw Penn State keep West Virginia off the scoreboard until the 78th minute, isn’t enough to satisfy new head coach Blake Burdette.
“We need to continue to find our defensive structure,” examined the former Eagle front rower. “Army will have a very defined and disciplined attack, and we need to have the same on the defense.”
The two D1A Playoff teams from a season ago enter the contest with a similar outlook to the beginning of their fall seasons. Both Army and Penn State are 3-0 in Rugby East, and each team’s best win came against Wheeling Jesuit. The Nittany Lions scraped and clawed for their win on the road against the Cardinals, while Army did enough to beat Wheeling Jesuit by 12 at home. After winning its first two conference matches by a combined 103-0, the challenging test from the Cardinals was exactly what Army needed prior to playing longtime Rugby East rival Penn State.
“We learned a lot from the Wheeling Jesuit game that we hope to improve on going forward,” Sherman said. “We lost our direction for a period of the game that hurt us, and we’ve been addressing how we can collectively stay the course – particularly when under pressure.”
Most importantly, Sherman and his staff were able to see how their squad dealt with the first ounce of adversity it had faced all season.
“Even when things weren’t going our way and we had lost momentum, it was excellent to see the collective resilience of the team to dig deep and find a way to get the job done,” recalled Sherman. “We know we have that in us.”
Sixth-ranked Kutztown still awaits both Army and Penn State at the back end of the Rugby East schedule. Still, the winner of tomorrow’s game between Canterbury D1A top-10 teams will be in the driver’s seat of the Rugby East bus.
The Friday evening match, set for 6 p.m. ET on the Penn State campus, will allow both teams to attend Saturday’s football between the Nittany Lions and West Point, which will also be played on the campus of Penn State.