BYU rugby: Looking back over a successful 2014 season

By Kelby Jones

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, May 8 2014 1:35 p.m. MDT

BYU celebrates their win over Cal in the Varsity Cup rugby championship at the Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, May 3, 2014. BYU won 43-33.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

With the dust still settling from the Cougars resounding 43-33 victory over the California Golden Bears, BYU head coach David Smyth, his staff and captain Kyle Sumsion took time to review the 2014 season which culminated in BYU winning the Varsity Cup National Championship for the second year in a row over the University of California.

By running in seven tries against the vaunted California rugby program in front of more than 10,000 fans at Rio Tinto Stadium, the Cougars put an exclamation point on a season that had high expectations from the outset, according to Smyth.

“The season was a huge success,” Smyth said. “Our main priority was obviously to defend our championship and we did that. I couldn’t be more proud of the work our players put into this season in order to help us win the Varsity Cup again. We have a lot of respect for the California rugby program and are fortunate to have come out champions in this meeting between our two teams.”

BYU and California have met in the championship game eight out of the last nine years dating back to 2006. Despite the Cougars’ resounding victory this past weekend, the Golden Bears still hold an edge in title game contests against BYU, 5-3.

With the 2014 championship, the Cougars take home their fourth title in six seasons and their third straight.

The tally of four titles moves BYU from a tie for second with the Air Force Academy (1989, 1990, 2003) into second place alone but still a far cry from California’s 26 total championships.

An 18-1 season record in 2014 is no small accomplishment historically speaking. Only two BYU teams in the history of the program have gone undefeated in the regular season: 2009 (15-0) and 2012 (17-0). Not coincidentally, both teams went on to win their respective national championships.

Of note is the 2013 season where the Cougars tallied a 13-2 record with the two BYU losses coming to Men’s Division sides New York Athletic Club and Old Puget Sound RFC.

The lone 2014 loss came early in the Cougars’ season at the hands of Saint Mary’s College on the Gaels’ Pat Vincent Field in Moraga, California, by the score of 30-24 after BYU led 24-20 with 10 minutes to play.

This first game of BYU’s home-and-away series with St. Mary’s was aptly described by Gaels head coach Tim O’Brien to Rugbymag.com as a game that saw his team “catch them [BYU] right off the bus.”

The return leg of the series saw the Cougars banish the loss from mind with a confident 35-21 victory in March.

“The loss to St. Mary’s in February was a definite wake-up call for us,” Sumsion said. “We needed to know that nothing was going to be handed to us. No disrespect from St. Mary’s, but that loss made us work harder so we could set the record straight as to who the better team was when they came to Provo.”

Since the St. Mary’s loss, the Cougars rattled off 12 straight victories with highlighted wins over 2013 Elite Cup Champs San Francisco Golden Gate in the Champions Challenge, the University of Utah in the return of the Wasatch Cup rivalry match and Arizona State University in the inaugural Rugby Bowl.

SFGG has gone on to prove their mettle as a top Men’s Division club by earning a spot in the inaugural Pacific Rugby Premiership final against the Glendale Raptors this coming week, while a resurgent rival Utah narrowly lost to Central Washington University, 26-24, in the Varsity Cup quarterfinals.

In total the Cougars tallied collegiate victories over three top-five ranked teams (St. Mary's, California and Navy) and four wins over other top-20 ranked teams (Utah, Arizona State, Cal Poly SLO and Dartmouth). These wins coupled with a few other victories prove BYU's 2014 resume is as solid as any other collegiate program's resume.

Looking back on the 18-1 record Smyth said he saw a solid team from the beginning of the season but that it took a while for the coaches and players to build their own identity and culture.

“We knew we were going to have a solid team collectively this year,” Smyth said. “But we also knew we're going to lack in some areas up front, so it took a while to figure out the exact combinations and personnel that we were going to have to lean on when the postseason began. But I think once we sorted that out and the players were able to get to know their roles, then we started building and playing some good rugby.”

When asked which moment this seasoned hinged on, Smyth left no doubt in saying the early season loss to St. Mary’s.

“We were still finding ourselves in February,” he said. “And they beat us straight up. But it was one of those losses that you’re glad to have as a coach because it made our guys open their eyes a bit and you could see them change their demeanor and how they prepared from that day forward. We beat St. Mary’s solidly when they came back to Provo and we kept building from there.”

With a 44-1 record against college competition in the last three seasons, the Cougars are looking to carve out the claim of being one of college rugby’s elite programs and building on this season’s successes, including their fourth national title.

“We don’t anticipate any drop off,” BYU assistant coach Wayne Tarawhiti said. “The guys were back in the gym on Monday getting ready for next year. So we’ll go about getting ourselves set up on and off the pitch as a coaching staff during this offseason and it’s our expectation that we keep raising the bar higher every year.”

Since the college rugby playoffs were moved from a Sunday play format in 2004, the Cougars have consistently lived up to Tarawhiti’s statement and improved their standing and results.

In addition to programmatic success, the BYU rugby program has helped develop rugby players for future international and professional honors. Since 2001, BYU has produced 33 All-Americans, eight National Team members and two former professional rugby players. The Cougars continue to attract top level rugby players from across America and because of the LDS faith’s worldwide footprint, many international rugby players seek out BYU as their university of choice to pursue a college degree while also playing the sport they love.

Smyth acknowledged the Cougars’ recent success has seen an increased level of interest from student-athletes across the globe but more importantly in his own backyard of Utah.

“The game has grown significantly here in Utah over the past five years,” Smyth said. “It’s no longer hundreds of kids playing rugby, but it’s literally thousands and that’s growing in number every year. Plus the age is dropping from the first time a player picks up a rugby ball from their teenage years to when they’re five or six. And that’s a big boost for us and the future of our program. Couple this with our natural national and international recruiting footprint and we’re cautiously optimistic with the future of the players we’ll be able to attract to BYU giving us depth and versatility as a team.”

This year’s roster is an example of the upward trending depth Smyth continues to see.

“Ten years ago we had a small pool of players to draft our starting team from,” he said. “But we had a greater number of options, especially in our backline, to pull from this year. We had former high school All-Americans fighting for first XV time against All-Americans and National Team members just because we’re attracting a higher caliber of athlete. And these are all good problems. The balance will come in managing all levels of player development moving forward with more meaningful playing opportunities and training.”

These increased playing opportunities will include a heady schedule that Smyth says will continue to rely on top tier collegiate games mixed with some men’s teams.

“You have to strike a balance when building a schedule,” he said. “We want to strengthen ourselves as a team and make these players develop individually, but we want to do this in a very controlled and well-thought-out fashion.”

With a renewed home-and-away series in 2015 with the Gaels of St. Mary’s, a likely expanded Red Rock Invitational, the Wasatch Cup expanding to a home-and-away series as well as more fixtures with top men’s division sides, next season will undoubtedly prove challenging for the BYU rugby program.

Also, a continued participation with the BYU development team in the Utah Rugby Conference will offer the “meaningful playing opportunities” that Smyth referenced.

When asked about the future plans of the Varsity Cup and its partnership with United World Sports, Smyth was very positive in his praise.

“The Varsity Cup has showed in just two short years that it is an elite postseason collegiate rugby championship,” he said. “We are excited about the relationship the Varsity Cup has with United World Sports and they bring a level of unmatched professionalism that college rugby has deserved for years.”

Smyth said the Varsity Cup’s plans for 2015 and beyond look bright after all 12 Varsity Cup coaches met with each other and UWS officials last weekend at Rio Tinto Stadium to discuss the future.

“Everyone in the room was very positive and committed to the goals of the Varsity Cup,” Smyth said. “Please it to say we all left the meetings committed to continuing our proactive stance with regards to growth and continuing to develop a premier post-season college rugby championship that serves to develop the game itself and the related marketing opportunities along with the experience of the student-athlete.”

Sumsion shared his coach’s sentiment from a student-athlete’s perspective.

“To play in front of 10,000 fans in a college rugby match is no small thing,” Sumsion said. “It was really exciting and in just the two years we’ve been involved with the Varsity Cup I’ve seen the general public latching on to not only what it is, but also to our program as a result. People know who we are and what we’re doing with the rugby program. And a lot has to do with how the Varsity Cup has put rugby in front of the general sports fan. I think it’s only going to continue growing.”

The Varsity Cup is America’s top collegiate postseason championship. The mission of the Varsity Cup is to grow American rugby by harnessing the collective strength of collegiate rugby and collegiate sport in general. The Varsity Cup features 12 of the most recognized and accomplished collegiate rugby programs in the country vying for the right to be named the Varsity Cup National Collegiate Champion.

The 12 Varsity Cup teams are the U.S. Air Force Academy, Brigham Young University, University of California, Clemson University, Central Washington University, Dartmouth College, U.S. Naval Academy, University of Notre Dame, University of Oklahoma, University of Texas, the University of California – Los Angeles and University of Utah. In the 34 years of the collegiate rugby championship play, 32 of the collegiate national champions have come from one of the 12 Varsity Cup teams. In total, a Varsity Cup program has played for the collegiate title every year except for 1984.

The Varsity Cup programs also boast hundreds of collegiate All-Americans and scores of USA National Team members, making the Varsity Cup a veritable proving ground of American rugby. With the country’s best high-performance training facilities, state of the art match venues and strong coaching experience, the Varsity Cup programs set the standard for elite player development in America.

The 2014 Varsity Cup National Championship was played in front of 10,172 fans at Rio Tinto Stadium and broadcasted live on the NBC Sports Network into approximately 80 million homes nationally.

With the addition of the Varsity Cup to the national championship trophy case, the BYU Cougars now officially close out the 2014 season and look to the offseason as they build toward 2015. With only five players graduating and a senior-laden team returning next season, the Cougars will likely be primed for another run deep into the postseason.

“We’re excited about our prospects,” Smyth said. “Our fans, alumni and BYU administrators have been crucial in getting this program to where it is today. We’re very grateful for all of their support and all of them should be excited about the future of the program, because we are.”

Kelby Jones is a student at BYU studying public relations and currently writes for BYU Rugby.

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