Plenty of drama in store in Jonesboro this weekend

D1A Rugby: Plenty of drama in store in Jonesboro this weekend
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JONESBORO, Ark. – They don’t get much prettier than this one. Life at Arkansas State. Two college rugby thoroughbreds, both with very real National Championship aspirations will square off in a crucial Mid-South conference game this Saturday (March 9) when the Life Running Eagles go into the heart of Red Wolves territory and try to pinch a win.

PLENTY OF DRAMA

The most recent installment of drama between these two powerhouses was not long ago. December 2012. ASU and Life both stormed into the USA Rugby College Sevens National Championship final after they both thoroughly beat down their respective opposition in the semis. ASU won the championship game 21-7.

In D1A last spring, Arkansas State didn’t beat Life once in league play. But, it was the Red Wolves who advanced to the D1A National Championship game after a massive comeback at St. Mary’s in the semifinals. On the other side of the bracket, eventual champs BYU snuck by the Running Eagles at home in the semis. If not for some stellar Cougar defense late in that one, it could well have been an Arkansas State vs. Life D1A National Championship game.

In the 2011 Sevens National Championship, Life beat ASU in the semifinals to end the Red Wolves’ title quest.

That’s a lot of drama between two teams, all of which has occurred in the last 16 months.

KEEPING EACH OTHER HONEST

For two teams that have been neck-and-neck in national rankings for years now, the two programs get along pretty well. There is a sense that if one program improves, it challenges the other to improve.

But let’s not kid ourselves; they both want desperately to beat each other in every way possible. They are always looking for a way to out-execute, out-recruit, and ultimately outplay the other.

CRAZY DEPTH

Looking over the ASU and Life rosters is pretty stunning.  All-Americans everywhere, even a few names that are or have been in the national team pool.  The players are what makes this rivalry so great.

For the Red Wolves, Paul Benade (wing), Dale Bates (wing), and Zac Mizell (center/flyhalf) will be tricky to contain.  All have pace, but Mizell is the playmaker.  He has the ability to make something out of nothing and score some beauties as he proved in the National Championship game last year.  Loose forward Alex Goff won the Junior World Rugby Trophy with the USA Junior All-Americans in June, and has elevated his game since then, becoming more ferocious and technical.

For Life, you have to tip your hat to their back three and their loose forwards.  Cam Dolan (loose forward) is a capped international sevens player for the USA and is a big, tough unit to move in a ruck and an elusive runner with ball in hand.  Gerson Blaise (wing) and Joe Cowley (fullback) can both hit from deep with pace.

The battle at the breakdown will be good to watch for rugby aficionados  but the whole game promises to be entertaining.

PROGRAM BUILDING

The success of Life and ASU is a testament to both programs. Personnel can change, but a culture has been established so any successor will inherit a program in good shape, with players committed to winning and to excellence.

This is the first year that a Huckaby hasn’t coached the Red Wolves team in 17 years. Curt Huckaby helped resurrect the ASU program and handed the reins to his son former ASU All-American and Eagle, Matt Huckaby in January 2010. Last year, former Life assistant coach Alex Houser took over after Matt stepped away and didn’t waste much time, winning a national championship (in sevens) within his first few months.

Life can claim similar continuity. Scott Lawrence, a former Eagle and stellar age-grade coach, helped rebuild Life’s program and passed the baton to national team coach and current Life Director of Rugby, Dan Payne. Since then, Payne has helped coach and bring in talented coaches to work with him so the program can continue to build.

PLAYOFF PICTURE

It’s likely that both ASU and Life will make the D1A playoffs. But the game on Saturday will see both teams try to put their stamp on their 2013 D1A campaigns. Fans can rest easy that it will be another classic to add to the ever-deepening lore of Arkansas State vs. Life.