LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Rugby East has long been considered one of the toughest conferences in the country, and its reputation was enhanced in the offseason. The University of Delaware is back in the fold in the East. A suspension kept the Blue Hens off the pitch for two seasons before they made their return to college rugby as a D1AA Independent side last season.
Delaware has expectations of finishing in the top half of the conference, but will have to fend off Rugby East’s traditional powers in order to do that. Army, Kutztown and Penn State, as they have been for several years, remain the premier East teams. Kutztown, despite losing to Penn State in the final week of the East season last year, claimed the conference title in 2015.
Iona’s steady improvement since its 2014 inclusion into Rugby East helped earned the boys from New Rochelle, N.Y., their first conference scalp when they knocked off Army last fall. The Gaels, however, will have to be much more consistent to produce multiple upsets this season. Buffalo and St. Bonaventure also joined the East in 2014, but have yet to notch a marquee victory.
West Virginia and Wheeling Jesuit are blooding new head coaches on campus, which could potentially stunt progress the two programs have made in recent years.
Penn State University Nittany Lions
Penn State’s first season being guided by Head Coach Blake Burdette witnessed the team improve over the course of the 2015-16 season. Following a few narrow victories and a 10-point loss at home to Army, the Nittany Lions strung together some very impressive outings – including a 24-15 win over previously-undefeated Kutztown.
The steady progression and unquestioned dedication Burdette has lent the program should make for an even better Penn State team in 2016. The goals are lofty in State College, Pa., but that is nothing new to the Nittany Lions.
“It’s always a goal to win championships here,” Burdette said. “We have to be more consistent if we want to be part of that conversation. There are some really good teams. We have to take it one game at a time. We are really looking forward to opening against West Virginia.”
While expectations are always high for the storied program, Penn State’s talent alone is reason enough to figure it has as good a shot as anyone to win the 2016 Rugby East title.
A pair of loose forwards are worth keeping an eye on. Chris Burian mans the back of Penn State’s scrum and continues to make positive strides as a rugby player. Open side flanker Malcolm May is well regarded around Rugby East and took home honors of the conference’s Player of the Year in 2015. His relentless motor and overall strength will make him a known commodity around the country by season’s end.
Penn State’s talent spreads into the back line, as well. Scrum half Jimmy Ronan has been a starter since he stepped on campus. The junior not only delivers accurate passes from the base of rucks, but handles the team’s kicking duties with great accuracy.
While Ronan makes his mark as a distributor and kicker, there are plenty of talented ball-runners on the squad. Tyler May and Selby Niu make up one of the better center pairings east of the Mississippi River. In the back three, Mike Eife is one of the most experienced Nittany Lions and a very potent danger-man on the wing. Full back Kevin Trotter is just a sophomore, but coming off a season in which he was named Rugby East’s Freshman of the Year, and is an integral part of what should be a feared back line.
A talented roster and growing familiarity between coaching staff and players aren’t the only reasons to think Penn State is as strong as its No. 4 ranking in D1A Rugby’s preseason Top 20. The Nittany Lions have already posted two impressive results that equated to a plus-122 point differential over Queen’s University of Ontario and Pittsburgh.
St. Bonaventure University Bonnies
St. Bonaventure hasn’t accumulated the number of Rugby East wins it would have hoped for after two seasons playing in the D1A conference.
“While it’s nice to see progression within the program since moving to Rugby East, the fact of the matter is that we are still looking to beat the upper-tier teams in the conference,” admitted Head Coach Tui Osborne. “In order to beat those teams, we need to be strong on defense, limit simple mistakes and penalties, and make the most of the ball possession we could get.”
Osborne knows what he’s talking about. The former USA Eagle was apart of coaching staffs at Life University that won National Championships in both 15s and sevens, before leading the team to back-to-back D1A National Championships as head coach of the Running Eagles.
Osborne’s addition to the St. Bonaventure program has already spurred improvement within the team. The Bonnies looked sharp in the spring playing sevens, and qualified for the USA Rugby College 7s National Championships.
“We look to continue that momentum into the 15s season by utilizing the chemistry built by the returning players with some solid forward play,” Osborne said heading into his first 15s season with the Bonnies. “If we can continue the momentum created by the spring sevens team, then we should be in for a great fall season for us.”
Like most teams, St. Bonaventure will have to replace some quality players. Lock Phil Jackling, along with loose forwards Paul Schulick and John Sullivan, are no longer wearing the brown and white of the Bonnies. The same can be said for valuable back-line players Dan Dillon and Jordan Farrant.
The Bonnies do, however, return a stable of impact players – especially up front. Tight head prop Kyle Ciquera is coming off a freshman campaign that rewarded the up-and-coming player All-Conference recognition. At tight head, Luis Carpio is a senior veteran and is good in the set piece as well as in open play.
A trusted half-back duo of sophomores, Christian Artuso and Eamonn Matthews, will set the tone in the back line. Their key targets will be Matt Bergstol at full back and winger Ryan McGovern.
West Virginia Mountaineers
The Mountaineers joined Rugby East last fall after graduating a large portion of their team in the spring. An inexperienced bunch took a few results on the chin, but the team will be much better prepared for the 2016 season after going 1-6 in its first go around in D1A Rugby.
Like St. Bonaventure, West Virginia also had several positives come out of its spring sevens season. The Mountaineers qualified for their second consecutive College 7s National Championships, and advanced out of their pool to compete in the Cup Quarterfinals.
Sevens results aside, West Virginia has some proven players ready for fall 15s – especially in the backs. Center CJ Burnes and scrum half Luke Ellis, both coming off seasons that earned them All-Rugby East Honorable Mention accolades, will once again be key figures to the Mountaineers’ attack.
Wheeling Jesuit University Cardinals
Wheeling Jesuit is one of three Rugby East teams entering the fall season with a new head coach. The always-tricky transition was made even more difficult because new lead man Tommy Duffy wasn’t hired until after the Cardinals had already played their first preseason match.
“I feel what is the most challenging aspect is coming into a team that had begun the season without me and gaining their trust and having them believe in me, the process, and overall vision,” Duffy said.
Wheeling Jesuit is now employing its third head coach in three seasons, but fortunately Duffy has some experienced and talented seniors to help ease the transition, beginning with All-American Peter Malcolm. The hooker has been with the program since its infancy and produces consistent go-forward ball.
Also back in the Cardinal lineup is captain Hugh McAllister. The senior lock is not only a big help on the leadership front, but a huge piece to Wheeling Jesuit’s lineout.
Allan Hanson moves from full back to fly half. Now in the No. 10 jumper, the 2015 First Team All-Conference selection will be wise to target Joji Vakasisikakala early and often in Rugby East fixtures. Vakasisikakla is a dynamic center who possesses the skill set to run around defenders, but can lower a shoulder effectively, as well.
Wheeling Jesuit is still looking for its first win over one of Rugby East’s ‘Big Three’ (Army, Kutztown and Penn State), but the Cardinals came close to doing so in 2015 thanks to the team’s willingness to keep the ball alive through timely offloads in traffic. It doesn’t appear that the confident and adventurous style Wheeling Jesuit applied last year is going anywhere just because of the recent coaching change.
“The team offensively has been successful with more open style of play and picking up on situational offloads,” explained Duffy.
The Cardinals don’t play one of the three Rugby East teams ranked in the top-half of the D1A Top 20 until their Oct. 8 showdown against Kutztown. The schedule, loaded more heavily on the back end, should benefit the Cardinals as they gel to Duffy’s approach.
The 2016 Rugby East season kicks off with a pair of Friday-night contests Sept. 9. Army will host Iona in a revenge match after the Gaels upset West Point last season, and West Virginia travels to a Penn State team that has already notched a couple impressive preseason results.
Saturday, Sept. 10, will round out the conference’s opening weekend when St. Bonaventure takes on Buffalo.
1) Penn State
6) Wheeling Jesuit
7) St. Bonaventure
9) West Virginia