“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.
Two champions or not?
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.”
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
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