Photos Dennis D. Hawk (homepage & right)
BOULDER, Colo. – There might not be a better rivalry in college rugby right now than the one between Life University and Arkansas State.
The powerhouse programs are the top two sides in college rugby’s most skilled and competitive conference – the Mid-South. So, after facing each other twice this year in the regular season, it is no surprise the two respected rivals will meet for a third time in D1A’s National Semifinal this Saturday.
Life, carrying an undefeated record in 2014, has gotten the better of Arkansas State in their two meetings this year. The first encounter was played two months ago at the Life University Rugby Complex. The Running Eagles built an early lead and never looked back on their way to a comfortable, 34-7, win for the home team, although Life Director of Rugby Dan Payne is quick to point out the final score “wasn’t an illustration of the competitiveness of the game.”
The second match’s scoreline was indicative of the competitiveness of the battle. Played in Jonesboro, Ark., the No. 2- and 3-ranked teams in the country exchanged leads three times on the afternoon. Life would eventually escape with a 23-17 win after Glen Maricelli scored a converted try with eight minutes remaining in the match.
Considering a trip to Stanford University to play for the D1A National Championship is on the line, the third rendition of this rivalry is more likely to resemble the more recent 80-minute nail-biter than the 27-point spread at the head of the season.
“They’ve all been great matches,” said Payne. “The guys on both sides always get up for the matches. Usually it’s the team that makes their kicks, and plays more error-free on the day, is the one that prevails.”
Arkansas State’s first-year head coach NeMani Delaibatiki echoed Payne’s sentiment of the two programs’ battles in recent years.
“Every time we play Life U. we know what to expect: a very physical match up front, one we relish and look forward to, and this weekend’s match will be no different,” said Delaibatiki. “A lot of things are on the line for both teams this weekend, and it sets up for another epic encounter between the two. We both want the same thing, and that is a trip to the finals in California, and ultimately winning the whole thing. Our boys will be ready to face that challenge come Saturday.”
Both Life and Arkansas State are led by players with All-American honors under their belt. But playing in a conference as deep as the Mid-South, a multitude of players must be relied on and step up as the season progresses.
For the Running Eagles, the unquestioned breakout player this season as been junior lock Jake Anderson.
“He’d probably be our player of the year so far,” said Payne. “He’s the best defender, best ball carrier, and operates the lineout. Even taking into account Joe Cowley, Glen [Maricelli], Paris [Hollis], and a lot of those guys and what they bring to the table. But Jake has been a great player for us, and filled the role left behind by Cam [Dolan].”
To a similar extent, Lourens Erasmus has been that breakout player for Arkansas State.
“He has really been steady the last few games, especially in the set piece,” Delaibatiki said of his sophomore hooker.
The Red Wolves have also been shuffling their backline lineup quite a bit this spring in an attempt to find a cohesive unit to replace Pat Sullivan, Dean Gericke and Zack Mizell, all of whom graduated last spring after being named AIG Men’s Collegiate All-Americans in 2013.
Stabilizing a young backline became even more challenging after flyhalf and bona fide playmaker Zinzan Elan-Puttick went down with a season-ending injury. Since Elan-Puttick’s injury, Tom Haussrer has settled in at number 10, leaving his typical back-three post, while Michael Baska has asserted himself at scrumhalf, and Dylan Carrion has found a new role as a dangerous edge attacker on the wing.
Joining Carrion at wing is former looseforward Kirk Pretorius. An AIG All-American last year, Pretorius has rejoined Arkansas State’s rugby team after participating with the school’s football team during spring workouts.
Needless to say, both teams have plenty of talented rugby players on their rosters, and feel confident heading into Saturday’s Semifinal. Still, it would be difficult not to deem Life the favorites. After all, the Running Eagles are playing at home and have won four consecutive matches against Arkansas State dating back to last season.
Players to watch:
Hiko Fotukava, Life – The Running Eagles were receiving plenty of resistance from the University of Colorado in the early goings of last week’s Quarterfinal. Clinging to a 5-3 lead 25 minutes into the match, Life finally started playing downhill after Fotukava made an incredible break off a lineout, using his noticeable combination of size and athleticism to deny would-be tacklers. The stellar run set up a try and gave Life the momentum that led to a 57-3 win.
Connor Cook, Arkansas State – Cook is one of several Red Wolves forwards who have multi-faceted skill sets. The flanker is a sure-tackler, good with ball in hand, and has also taken over kicking duties for Arkansas State. Cook nailed his first three conversion attempts, the third converting his own try, in last week’s Quarterfinal win over Cal Poly.
#2 Life University vs. #3 Arkansas State – Marietta, Ga. 1:30 p.m. (EST).
Watch live at Rugby4LIFE.com.