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Men’s club rugby looks to turn heads in coming weeks

This Saturday and Sunday, the 12th and 13th of April, men’s club rugby will be hosting the Ivy League Championships at Rickerson Field, looking to build on last season’s convincing semifinal berth performance, where they lost to eventual winners Dartmouth. The stakes are high for this season’s tournament, with the winners booking a place to the Nationals, where the team can compete at the highest collegiate level. The team, led by senior captains Peter Na and Chris Hamm, is hopeful for the tournament, ambitiously targeting a berth in the final.

However, it has been a tough season for the Tigers. The team had lost eight seniors at the end of last season, and things went from bad to worse when cocaptain Chris Hamm was injured over summer, and then star fly-half sophomore Michael Rice went down with a torn ACL in the first game of the season. Losing a captain is tough, but the loss of the team’s fly-half is perhaps one of the biggest losses for a rugby team. It is, perhaps equivalent of a football team losing its quarterback. The impact of these injuries was evident; the Tigers started the season 0-4, with heavy defeats at the hands of Cornell, Columbia and Penn.

The team, however, started to gel and bounced back from this poor start with a streak of great performances, remaining unbeaten since October with some impressive victories, including a 20-14 upset of Penn and comprehensive 20-0 victory over Coast Guard. The team also earned some invaluable experience from its spring break tour to Ireland, where the team was given a great opportunity to train with Connacht, a professional academy. The tour was also vital in building team camaraderie, strengthening the bond among the players, which has further enhanced their performance on the field. This momentum has injected immense confidence in the team, especially with three tournaments coming up in three consecutive weeks.

Following the Ivy League Championships is the Koranda Cup, named in the memory of Rob Koranda ’02, who tragically died in a balcony collapse in Chicago in 2003. This match will be played at home against Yale in a winner-take-all format, and the team expects to win the cup again on home turf. The Rickerson Cup, the New Jersey State Championships, is held the weekend after the Koranda Cup, and the team hopes to defend its title, which it has held since 2009.

One of the team’s top players this season, sophomore Ali Alami, expects a great performance in the upcoming tournaments, saying, “We want to put on a good showing at the Ivies and then defend our titles at the Koranda and Rickerson Cups.” Alami himself has walked the walk, impressing as the team’s top try scorer and leading with experience and dynamism.

If they do manage to win both the Koranda and Rickerson Cups, the future indeed looks extremely bright for the team. With only three additional seniors on the team, ET Gallant, Richard Lee and Colin Sylvester, the team has a lot of potential, especially due to strong leadership from the current junior year and a fantastic crop of freshman players. Alami emphasized this, stating, “We are continually on the up; the freshmen who started playing in the fall have learned more about the game and are fast improving.”

The success of the team could not have been achieved without coach and director of rugby Richard Lopacki, who has skippered the side for over a decade. His experience and tactical awareness has been vital to the team’s performance this season. The team has also been boosted by the arrival of M.C. Laubscher from South Africa, who is credited with having revolutionized the team’s game and fitness and deserves a lot of credit for its improvement as the season has progressed. The very presence of the coach for club rugby is fairly noteworthy, as most club teams do not have a coach.

Men’s club rugby has not only had a good year on the field, but also off the field. Although rugby has been played at Princeton since 1876 and has been played by notable names such as Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, and James Baker ’52, it has only just recently built a clubhouse, named Haaga House. Princeton became one of the only universities to have its own rugby facility when Haaga House, located at West Windsor Fields, was opened in 2013. The clubhouse was named after Paul Haaga Jr. ’70, who generously donated the funds for the building. Haaga House’s opening demonstrates the influence that club rugby has always had on the student body, and the team hopes to build on the great foundation and tradition of Princeton rugby, with continued success both on and off the field.

The increased popularity of the team in recent years has been expected, with more and more students becoming attracted to the sport. The players are attracted to an action-packed 80 minutes of rugby, where players are always involved, regardless of position. It is an endeavor which requires, at every position, a rare mix of speed, strength, technique and tactical nous. The spectators are also rewarded with a fantastic game to watch, with few breaks during the game and some jarring hits from players. What is most rewarding about watching rugby may be the fact that the players are extremely tough: they tackle well and they are not intimidated by their opposition.

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