Rugby East play finally begins this weekend, as No. 11 Davenport travels to eighth-ranked Kutztown. The season would have begun earlier, but Delaware’s suspension cuts the league down to just four teams. Even then, the Rugby East is still the toughest fall 15s competition in the country.
(Davenport is only playing in the Rugby East for the purpose of qualifying for the American Collegiate Rugby Championship. The Panthers will still play in the Mid-South in the spring.)
Both Davenport and Kutztown have played just one friendly coming into this match. Kutztown beat up Albany 81-0 Sept. 21, and Davenport downed Michigan State 29-0 Sept. 28. The Golden Bears’ win was as expected, but the Panthers were disappointed in the way they played against Michigan State.
“The Michigan State game, personally, I think it was the worst rugby we’ve ever played, and we still came away with a win. I wasn’t happy about it, but we’re going to have to work it out,” said Davenport coach Kruger Van Biljon.
“There’s a lot of new guys on the team. We don’t have that team chemistry we used to have, and it’s going to take this whole season to get that back. We have the athletes and the rugby players, but team chemistry is a big thing.”
Davenport lost All American flanker Ryan Hargraves, both starting locks, their No. 8 and a prop over the offseason. And All American prop Angus MacLellan is studying and playing this semester at Trinity in Ireland. So the Panthers are working with practically a brand new pack.
“Most of these guys did get game time in the season [last year],” said Van Biljon. “It’s not like they’re new to the system. It’s just they’re new to the players around them in a sense where we’ve had all these guys together for about four years, and now there’s new guys coming in.”
Kutztown, on the other hand, returns almost its entire pack. The one major loss is All American hooker Jamie Gregory, who graduated and is now the women’s team at West Chester while going to grad school. Still, the Golden Bears expect to be really formidable in the forwards, with the likes of All American lock Mike Lawrenson and U20 vets Cap Huizenga and Caleb Tracey at hooker and second row, respectively.
KU expects to be really good in the backs, too, losing just one player in 7s All American Tim Acker. Niku Kruger is back at No. 9, there's no change at flyhalf, and Gareth Lourens, Bruce Dolan and Robert Stortz form a mean backline.
“We’re just going to try and put a lot of defensive pressure on them, and we’re going to try to go forward with our forwards and bang through and go wide,” said Kutztown coach Gregg Jones. “Just basic stuff, but we’ll see how they respond.”
Davenport has made some significant changes going into this weekend, dropping upperclassmen scrumhalves in favor of freshman Troy Tirotta, slotting in freshman Reese Oberlin at lock and bringing in a new blindside flanker.
“After the State game we pulled the guys aside one-by-one, and we asked them, do you deserve to play this weekend?” said Van Biljon. “And most of these guys, after the way they performed, were honest and said probably not.”
Still, Davenport has some really good players in flyhalf JP Eloff, hooker Gabe Sochanek and flanker Alek Mares, amongst others, and they’ll be looking to avenge a two-point loss to Kutztown from a year ago, which is exactly what the Golden Bears are expecting.
“Davenport will be a real good test to measure ourselves,” said Jones. “We beat them last year in the last five seconds, so I don’t expect anything different this year.”