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."
BYU hosted the reigning USA men’s division champs New York Athletic Club in early March, which resulted in a 22-16 in favor of NYAC. "The match literally turned on two or three mistakes," said Smyth, "They were a little more crafty than our boys were, but we finished very strong. If we'd had a little more time, we could have won the match. We had moments that we were not at our best, but there were moments we showed we could go toe-to-toe with anybody in the country."
The experience from those two games proved to be valuable.
The rest of the regular season wasn't much of a test: 91-3 over Utah State; 91-0 against Snow College; 98-3 vs. Southern Utah (which included having to shovel the snow off of their home field before playing); and a season high 112-0 against Dixie State.
The last of their canceled games was their late-season battle against Utah. That didn't happen because of Utah suspending their Rugby team for violating university policy. This was very disappointing for the Cougars, who look at their match against Utah as a great measuring stick for how they are playing.
This brings us to the post season, in what Smyth describes as "very unchartered waters."
In their search for a better option, BYU turned to themselves and seven other top programs from the top division of college rugby, and came up with 2013 Varsity Cup National Championship. The strength of those teams is evident, with 31 of the last 33 National Collegiate Championships having been won by one of the Varsity Cup teams. But really, at the end of the day, it was about bringing back a championship match between BYU and Cal.
BYU beat UCLA for the second time this year in the quarter finals, 69-8. Smyth was concerned since his team hadn't played for three weeks, but they "came out very well against an improved UCLA team."
Next came a semi-final match versus Central Washington. The Cougars came back to win, 53-20, but Smyth admitted, "They were the better team for about a 20-minute stretch, but two quick tries right before half took the wind out of their sails."
"A lot of teams we play will try hard for about four or five minutes, and then they give up," Linehan added, "But they came in and gave us a game."
Finally, it was time for the hoped for final. The matchup of seven of the last eight years to crown a national champion.
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As BYU senior prop Ray Forrester put it, “It’s going to be a battle. One for the ages. One that will have a big impact on not only both universities’ rugby traditions, but also the future of collegiate rugby. It doesn’t get any more exciting.”
The early lead for BYU is 16-3, but Cal comes back and ties it up at 24 going into the waning minutes. Linehan wins it for BYU with a drop kick as time runs out.
As BYU senior captain Ryan Roundy said, "There's no better way to go out. You couldn't ask for a better scenario for my last game of my college career. To be able to beat Cal in my last game, and for it to come down to the last drop kick — it was picture-perfect. It was awesome. You couldn't ask for a better finish."
Todd Hougaard is a graduate of Brigham Young University and a Utah native. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org