LAFAYETTE, Colo. – The 2016 Rugby East season has hit its midway point, and the perennial powers of the East Coast’s most difficult conference are again filling out the top half of the standings.
Penn State, the team that was in the best form by the end of the 2015 Rugby East season despite placing second behind Kutztown, has picked up where it left off last fall. After opening its season with impressive nonconference wins over Queens University and Pittsburgh, the Nittany Lions are now 6-0 in conference play and have won each of their games by double digits. Penn State’s closest encounter came on the road at West Point when the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions beat eighth-ranked Army, 29-13.
The 16-point loss to Penn State has been West Point’s lone defeat so far this season. The Black Knights allowed a total of just five tries in victories over Iona, West Virginia, St. Bonaventure, Buffalo, Delaware and Wheeling Jesuit. Their most recent win, a 53-7 handling of No. 17 Wheeling Jesuit, has been their most impressive. The two teams were coming off opposite results heading into the fixture. The Cardinals had just recorded a hallmark win over Kutztown, while Army was seeking an improved performance after losing to Penn State. West Point’s decisive win keeps it in the hunt for a conference title, while demonstrating that Wheeling Jesuit may not be ready to cement itself among the East’s very best.
Uncharacteristically, the reigning Rugby East Champions have dealt with some mixed results. Kutztown’s 72-12 thumping of Iona showed it can still perform with the country’s best. However, its loss to Wheeling Jesuit took many by surprise, but Golden Bear fans were treated to a more typical showing when the team overpowered St. Bonaventure, 60-36.
Iona College made great strides in its second season in Rugby East and its improved 2015 campaign was highlighted by an upset defeat of Army. The Gaels haven’t been able to notch another marquee win so far this season, although they did give West Point troubles in a losing effort. Down the stretch, Iona should be favored in its last three games of the season. If the Gaels can avoid an upset over the next month they will finish with a more-than-respectable record of 4-4.
St. Bonaventure hasn’t been able to stay competitive with the top end of the conference, but it was able to handle Buffalo and West Virginia with ease. Like Iona, if the Bonnies win out they will end the season with a .500 record. Their Nov. 5 showdown with the Gaels will be a huge match for both teams. Since joining Rugby East in 2014, St. Bonaventure hasn’t been able to top Iona, losing to the Gaels, 33-10, a year ago.
Buffalo is off the schneid. An Oct. 8 win over Delaware – in dominant fashion – gave the Bulls their first Rugby East win. Building off that victory will be tough as Buffalo plays three of its final four games on the road. If the Bulls are going to double their win total for the 2016 season their best bet is getting the job done Nov. 5 against West Virginia.
The reason the Bonnies have a good chance of adding to their win column against West Virginia is because the Mountaineers have not been playing well. As expected, the second-year Rugby East program fell in one-sided contests against highly ranked Penn State and Army to open its season. Unfortunately for West Virginia, giving up 70 points to St. Bonaventure a couple weeks ago wasn’t the improved performance its coaching staff was hoping for.
There is a potential light at the end of the Mountaineers tunnel, though. Their final three conference matches will be played at home and their trio of remaining opponents currently carry losing Rugby East records.
Delaware’s return to Rugby East has been a rocky one. The Blue Hens have opened the season with four consecutive losses – three of which came on the road. The program’s extremely young roster will likely need another year or two of growth and maturity before it can get back to being the conference contender it was prior to its lengthy suspension. Posting a win before season’s end is far from out of the questions for Delaware, but the experience its freshman-heavy roster will receive will be as important as any victory.