BYU rugby non-scholarship team once again a title favorite
Tom Smart, Deseret News
PROVO — BYU rugby team captain Ryan Roundy leads the nation in scoring, but he can pretty much walk around campus in anonymity.
And that's not the only difference between Roundy — who has recorded the most "trys" (analogous to touchdowns in football) in the country — and Cougar athletes like Jake Heaps or Jimmer Fredette.
At BYU, rugby is an extramural sport, which means Roundy does not receive an athletic scholarship or preferential treatment, unlike most of those who play NCAA-sanctioned sports such as football and basketball. He holds down a part-time job at Banana Republic at the local mall, and he pays team dues and chips in to cover travel costs. The team travels by bus to its destinations, and on the road, players stay at the homes of members of the LDS Church.
When Roundy isn't attending classes, studying or working, he's devoting about 30 hours a week to rugby. A portion of that time is spent in the trainers' room to be treated for a variety of injuries. Rugby players routinely hurt their ankles, shoulders and knees. Roundy sustained 13 stitches to his forehead after a 123-3 (no, not a misprint) victory over Wyoming on April 1.
"Our focus is school, then rugby," Roundy said. "It's a great balancing act, but it keeps things interesting."
Why do Roundy and his teammates play this dangerous, unglamorous, and relatively obscure sport?
"We're out here because we love the game. It's something fun to do while we go to school," he said. "Rugby is a fast game. Everybody gets to run the ball, even the big guys. Everyone likes to get a little aggression out."
Mikey Su'a, who plays the prop position — which he describes as a hybrid of a fullback and lineman in football — grew up watching and playing rugby. His father played for the Cougars in the 1970s.
"I just love fitting in with the tradition of BYU rugby," Su'a said. "To be able to follow my dad's footsteps, and wear 'BYU' on our chests, is incentive enough."
But there's another big reason why they play. The Cougars, who have established themselves as a perennial power in rugby, are vying once again for the national championship, which they last achieved in 2009.
"That's the ultimate goal," said Su'a.
This year, for the first time, the collegiate rugby national championship will be played in the state of Utah — at Rio Tinto Stadium — on May 21. The Cougars, who conclude their regular-season schedule Saturday (12:30 p.m.) at South Field in Provo against Arizona State, must first survive the quarterfinals and semifinals.
"We're hoping to get to the title," said vice-captain, and flyhalf, Dylan Lubbe. "I'm not predicting anything yet. We have a long road ahead of us."
As usual, undefeated BYU is steamrolling its competition this season. Over the years, the Cougars have turned Provo into a rugby hotbed.
"I get 10 emails a week from every corner of the world from kids around the world who want to play rugby at BYU," said coach David Smyth.
Even still, some of the brightest young rugby recruits are from the Beehive State.
"To get some of the best players in the country, I only have to go 30 miles," said Smyth, who's been coaching the Cougars since 1990. "We have two of the best high school and under-19 programs in the country with Highland (High) and United (a club team based in Alpine). This year we brought in seven kids from United, who won the national championship. Their contributions are huge."
Roundy is a product of Highland's renowned program led by former Cougar rugby player Larry Gelwix.
"We always get kids from California, too," Smyth said. "We have kids from 14 different states."
Other players come from as far away as New Zealand, Tonga, South Africa, Fiji and England.
Lubbe, who hails from Durban, South Africa, is not LDS. A recruiter from Utah offered him and a friend the option of playing at BYU or Utah.
"We decided to take a leap of faith and come to BYU. It worked out," Lubbe said. "I had no idea about the rivalry (between BYU and Utah). I figured it out the first time we played them. It was quite a shock."
After Utah, BYU's biggest rival is Cal. The Cougars and Golden Bears have met in the national championship match several times since USA Rugby, the sport's governing body, moved the championship to Saturdays after holding it on Sundays for 20 years. Because BYU teams do not play on Sundays, the Cougars couldn't compete for the title during that two-decade period.
"That was a massive hurdle to overcome," Smyth said.
Many rugby observers are predicting another BYU-Cal championship showdown this season. In one national poll, the Cougars are No. 1 and the Bears are No. 2. In the other, Cal is No. 1 and BYU is No. 2.
"On the national scene, in the last five years, Cal has been a huge rival for us," Smyth said.
There are 31 teams on the premier level of collegiate rugby, which is divided into four conferences. BYU competes in the Western Conference while Cal is in the Pacific Conference. Unlike the rest of the premier rugby programs, Cal's team is fully funded by its athletic department.
Though rugby is an extramural sport at BYU, Smyth said his team receives strong support from the athletic department and the university. Former players make financial contributions as well.
Current Cougar rugby players are grateful for what they have, and they work hard to play the sport they love.
"The players give up a lot of their lives to play for this team," Lubbe said. "We practice as hard as any other team that does get scholarships. BYU's program has come a long ways."
Smyth, who played for the Cougars in the 1980s, knows all about that.
"We've committed ourselves that if we're going to play rugby here, we might as well be the best we can be at it," he said. "If you work at it and you're good, the sacrifices are worth it."
BYU rugby results 2011
Jan. 20 BYU 86, Claremont Colleges 0
Jan. 21 BYU 25, San Diego 10
Jan. 22 BYU 69, San Diego State 0
Feb. 11 BYU 64, Penn State 0
Feb. 12 BYU 89, Cal Poly SLO 8
March 5 BYU 40, Utah 22
March 17 BYU 94, Colorado 5
March 19 BYU 95, Air Force 8
March 26 BYU 99, Colorado State 0
April 1 BYU 123, Wyoming 3
April 9 BYU 70, Arizona 12
April 23 BYU 39, Dixie State College 12
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