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
“USA Rugby levels the playing field with new college eligibility regulations,” was the headline out of the USA Rugby offices the week after the 2012 championship match. Among the eligibility changes: A five-year eligibility clock would begin the semester after players graduated from high school rather than when they enrolled, and — critically for BYU — USA Rugby would only grant one-year extensions instead of two-year extensions for missing school.
Those changes clearly would have had an enormous impact at BYU, where players often serve two-year missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We felt," Cougar head coach David Smyth said, "it was a direct shot at BYU."
“I think (BYU) felt betrayed a little bit,” said Cortez. “I can understand their frustration.”
As a result, BYU pulled out of USA Rugby's postseason tournament.
“We thought we could do a better job and could better control the destiny of college rugby,” said Smyth.
It wasn’t just BYU though. By the time the 2013 postseason would get underway, 15 of the original 31 Premier Division teams would be out. This led to the formation of the Varsity Cup National Championship and what would become known as the Varsity Cup Eight — Air Force, BYU, Cal, Dartmouth, Navy, Notre Dame, UCLA and Utah.
"(It) made sense to Cal from the first time it was explained,” Clark said. “We wanted to compete with the best teams, and we wanted to participate in a postseason which would grow the sport."
It caught many in USA Rugby unprepared, and the response was simple.
“You don’t play in our tournament, you don’t play in our divisions.” Cortez said, “It possibly was an overreaction, but it (the Varsity Cup) was viewed as an attempt to exclude some teams.”
As a result, the 2013 season became hodgepodge. Many teams turned to independent scheduling, playing games whenever they could. USA Rugby bumped up some D1-AA teams and got back to 19 D1-A schools so their teams could play more games.
And the 2013 postseason? Divisive.
Both tournaments took eight teams. The Varsity Cup invited its members, replacing suspended Utah with lesser-known Central Washington. USA Rugby’s D1-A tournament took the top two teams who qualified from each of their four conferences.
As a result, USA Rugby says BYU's national championship isn't legitimate. USA Rugby’s college national champion will be determined this Saturday when St. Mary’s faces Life University.
It’s a notion BYU Rugby scoffs at.
“Thirty-one out of 33 champions have been Varsity Cup teams,” responded Smyth. “We wouldn’t have a problem qualifying.”
“To the people who it matters most to — the players, the administrators of the two schools, the fans — it was their national championship,” said Kjar. “It’s not what an administrator at USA Rugby or another university says.”
The future of college rugby: TBD
USA Rugby will hold its annual board meeting Friday.
What’s on the table? Proposed eligibility changes to seven years instead of five. Grant programs for improving teams, and subsidies for teams that make the finals.
Who’s at the table? Everyone. BYU and Cal are still a part of USA Rugby. All sides say they are working “for the good of the game.”
“It’s not a fight,” said Kjar, “just a difference of opinion.”
BYU’s perspective: “We’re happily involved and enjoying college rugby,” said Smyth. “We’re open to discussions with anybody and everybody on progressing the game at universities, and in America.”
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USA Rugby’s side: “If enough teams want to do their own thing,” said Cortez, “then maybe the national championship is a thing of the past.”
The future of college rugby hangs in the balance. The Varsity Cup is looking to grow — Texas and Utah are already in the mix for next season. In the end, it may just unfold like Linehan’s kick: a winning score as time expires.
“Rugby people are so darned independent,” said Cortez. “They want to do things their own way.”
Todd Hougaard is a graduate of Brigham Young University and a Utah native. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org