Tom Smart, Deseret News
This week, a national champion will be crowned in collegiate D1-A rugby.
No, this is not the Varsity Cup championship BYU won two weeks ago. A separate and, according to USA Rugby, legitimate championship will be decided this weekend between St. Mary’s College and Life University.
“I applaud their efforts, but the Varsity Cup is an invitational. The (USA Rugby) national championship is the one you earn your way into,” USA Rugby Collegiate Director Rich Cortez said. “What BYU won against Cal was a mythical championship.”
Looking back, freshman Jonny Linehan’s winning kick against Cal two weeks ago has come to epitomize BYU’s 2013 rugby postseason: timed right, surprising and decisive.
The formation of two championships
Rugby is a growing sport. There are now more than 900 colleges playing rugby in the United States from intramurals on up to elite competition and USA Rugby is trying to keep a handle on all of it.
“It’s a time of change for college rugby,” said Cortez. “What football and basketball have learned over 50 years, we are trying to learn it all in six months, and it’s not very comfortable.”
Amid the growth, the top rugby schools formed the College Premier Division (now D1-A) in 2011, taking the top 31 universities and putting them in a conference format instead of the traditional breakdown of unions and territories.
The first year seemed to work OK; it produced the sixth-straight championship match between Cal and BYU. Cal won 21-14 in front of a big crowd in Rio Tinto Stadium.
Then, the wheels started to come off.
The power of BYU and Cal
Six teams chose not to participate in the Premier Division the following year, the most notable being the defending champions. Cal head coach Jack Clark stated a number of reasons for his team's withdrawal at the time, and he also said the timing was right.
"We graduated most of our team after the national championship, and returned a very inexperienced team in 2012," Clark said. "Not being in the postseason was tempered by the fact we weren't good enough."
A major factor for Cal was playing the tournament during finals and graduation. Another reason was money.
“Our final with BYU generated significant income,” Clark said at the time. “However, the two finalists didn't participate in the profits and we paid our own expenses to participate."
The money brought in from that match went to help fund other USA Rugby needs, including the 25-30 other national championships it administers and some of the expenses of the national team as well.
“Without a doubt, Cal-BYU games do well. They are the exception,” says Cortez. “They may have the opinion their brand is strong, and they’re right. But if you want to be a part of something, you share the ups and the downs.”
Money was an issue for BYU as well, but not enough for the Cougars to follow Cal and others in 2012. As BYU assistant coach Kimball Kjar put it, “It kind of worked the first year, but with some financial issues and management issues, we got a sense that it was going nowhere fast.”
In conjunction with the 2012 championship — a thrilling albeit poorly attended 49-42 BYU win at Rio Tinto Stadium vs. Arkansas St. — USA Rugby held a board meeting. Eligibility changes from that meeting prompted BYU into action.
BYU declares rugby independence
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