BYU rugby: The making of a national champion

By Todd Hougaard

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, May 13 2013 1:20 p.m. MDT

Team captain Ryan Roundy holds up the trophy as BYU defeats Cal 27-24 in rugby on a drop as time expires to win the Varsity Cup national championship Saturday, May 4, 2013, in Provo.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Editor's note: The BYU rugby team recently won the 2013 Varsity Cup National Collegiate Championship. In part one of this two-part series, author Todd Hougaard looks back at their season. Part two will detail why there will be two "champions" in college rugby this year.

PROVO — BYU 27-Cal 24.

BYU is the 2013 national champion in rugby.

For many casual fans, that's as far as their knowledge goes. It's sort of like reading the last page of the book first.

It's time to turn back the pages.

The story of this season goes back at least to May 19, 2012. The Cougars cap a perfect 17-0 season with a victory over Arkansas State, 49-42, at Rio Tinto Stadium, and claim the 2012 National Championship.

Less than a week later comes this headline from USA Rugby: "USA Rugby levels playing field with new college eligibility regulations."

The new rules basically cut off a year of playing time for athletes who take time out of school for military or church service. BYU head coach David Smyth felt it was a direct shot at BYU, "They left us no option but to look for other options."

Three weeks later, BYU announces they "will no longer be participating in USA Rugby’s Collegiate Division 1-A postseason tournament," and start looking for other post-season options.

Not only that, the team also has to piece together an independent schedule without games they were playing against Western Conference foes in the USAR College Premier Division. Games against Arizona and Arizona State were replaced with ones against Dixie State and Snow College.

Smyth also had to replace the holes left by 12 graduating seniors. Two of the biggest slots were the two halfbacks, where Shaun Davies and Dylan Lubbe have been for five years. The whole team's chemistry hinged on Smyth finding the right players to fill those shoes.

One of those players showed up at the beginning of October, shoes in hand, all the way from New Zealand. "Jonny (Linehan) showed up and we worked him out on Tuesday, he came back for an hour and a half on Thursday, and we were impressed with what he could do," Smyth said. Linehan went home, took the ACT, and was in school by Jan. 9.

The other position was taken by Luke Mocke, another freshman, who came from South Africa to play for the Cougars. His highlight of the year actually came after the championship game, when he proposed to his girlfriend.

With the new "boys" in town, as Smyth calls them, the season kicked off on Jan. 11 at the Red Rock Tournament in Mesquite, Nev. BYU won a couple of close matches against Utah, 29-12, and Idaho State, 27-17. The Cougars also experienced their first of five canceled games due to weather — Weber State couldn't come due to a major snowstorm along the Wasatch Front.

A tough match against San Diego State came next, with the Cougars prevailing 41-21. "We were on their field, they were hosting the defending national champs, and they rose to the occasion," Smyth said. "We were able to tweak a few things in our next match with UCLA," he continued. Those "tweaks" turned into an 84-14 pounding of the Bruins. One of those tweaks — Linehan's first start — resulted in two tries and six conversions.

Path to a postseason

In search of stiffer competition, BYU regularly schedules men's division teams. This year was no different, with the Cougars taking on the top two teams in the country. One such team, Old Puget Sound Beach, scored a late try to edge out the Cougars 34-30 in St. George.

"I was very impressed with them," said Smyth, "They were a big, physical team, with four national team players, but our boys went toe-to-toe with them. We learned something from them, and I saw how the boys would respond."

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