Men’s rugby is looking to be this year’s Cinderella team as they head into the USA Rugby National Championship Series. After a disappointing loss in the Ivy Championships to an experienced Brown side, the team received an unexpected at-large bid to college rugby’s premier tournament. This exciting news energized the players to a bounce-back performance last weekend to claim the Koranda Cup against Yale, the team they previously defeated in the semifinals of the Ivy Championships. This victory provided the perfect run-in to an extremely tough tournament.
This is the team’s first qualification in the D1-AA Sweet 16 since 2000 and this 14-year drought has left the players hungry for some success. The team is not the only new arrival in the tournament, as 11 of the 16 teams were not involved in the tournament last season. They will travel to Penn State to face top-seed West Virginia, seeking an upset. The game will be held on Saturday April 26th at 12:15 p.m. If the team does manage to pull off an upset, they will face the winner of the Brown and San Diego matchup.
West Virginia qualified for the tournament by winning the Keystone Conference, a feat they achieved back in November after dominating West Chester 50-15. Coached by Richard Glover, who previously played competitive rugby in Scotland, the West Virginia players superb technically and physically. This is clearly evident from their form, having easily dispatched strong teams such as Temple and Millersville by dominating score-lines, although they are not invincible, as both Bowling Green and St. Joseph’s have shown this season.
The matchup will not be easy in any sense, according to sophomore Forrest Hull said: “It’s going to be tough. West Virginia will be one of the best, if not the best, team we’ve played this year.” Sophomore Ali Alami agrees with the sentiment, claiming that this game “is obviously a huge step up for the lads, but we are ready to give our all.” Although the players know West Virginia is favored and has a strong team, they are still confident of achieving a result. Hull added that: “We’re ready for the challenge.”
The anticipation of such a tough opposition has pushed the team to train and practice harder, raising the intensity of their training sessions in order to improve conditioning and fitness. The players need to be accustomed to the pace and strength of the West Virginia team, and the tournament has 80-minute games, as opposed to the shorter games the Princeton team is used to playing this season, including in the Ivy Championships.
“We’ve put in the hard yards in practice over the last few weeks in order to get us in the best possible shape going into this weekend,” junior fly-half William Hicks said. “ I don’t doubt for a second that we will match the intensity of our opponents. The real question is whether or not this young team can play smart rugby for a full 80 minutes. If we do, we have it in us to pull off the upset.”
Perhaps the inexperience of this team will prove costly in the tournament when opposed by the much more experienced West Virginia team. It is the first time these players have played at such a large stage, much larger than the Ivy Championships or the Koranda Cup. However, it is not all about experience. The team has youth and strength on its side, and the players are hungry for some success, Alami saying: “The team is ready to put on a good display.” The players also believe they have improved significantly both individually and collectively over the past few weeks. “We’ve done a lot of work the last couple weeks, and I think it is really going to show. We’re a better team now than we were against Brown, and I know everyone is excited to get out there and play for Princeton in our first Sweet 16 National Tournament in almost 15 years,” Hull noted.
Regardless of how the tournament turns out, this has been a fantastic season for Princeton men’s rugby with a highlight of achieving an at-large bid to Nationals. The team overcame many tough injuries and setbacks early on in the season and performed spectacularly in the spring with many convincing wins, including the recent victory to retain the Koranda Cup. The team’s younger members are having great seasons, and they will improve mightily with more game time and more experience, Hull says: “We’ve got a young team and a bright future.”
A bright future indeed, one that can start with an impressive upset this coming Saturday.