There are three quarterfinal games in the inaugural American Collegiate Rugby Championship Saturday, but one stands out among the others – Penn State traveling to Clemson. While receiving the only at-large berth in the competition, Penn State is considered one of the fledgling playoff’s favorites.
“As the No. 2 seed in this competition it’s not usually common to be the underdog, especially at home, but I think we feel like we are with them coming down here,” said Clemson coach Justin Hickey, “and we definitely respect their tradition and what they’ve done in the past and kind of what they’re looking at right now, so we’re definitely geared up for it.”
Penn State and Clemson have met this century, but Hickey wasn’t coaching at Clemson yet and all of the current players were a ways away from college. Still, there’s a familiarity between the programs.
“There’s some athletes on their team that we had actually recruited or had looked at Penn State, so I know some of their players,” said Penn State coach Don Ferrell. “They’ve won their conference. They’re going to be a good team.”
“It’s one of the more high profile games we’ve had at home in a long time, certainly since I’ve been here. It’s one that I think a lot of guys took notice to,” said Hickey. “I think we end up drawing similar type kids. Kids that end up here maybe looked at Penn State at one point or vice versa, so there’s definitely some interest, and I think the kids kind of know each other, so it’s a good friendly rivalry without having even met for a number of years.”
Clemson and Penn State have had starkly different falls. The Tigers played a full league slate, and a friendly, staying busy almost every weekend since early September. The Nittany Lions, on the other hand, have mustered just four matches due in part to the suspensions of Army and Delaware.
“We’re looking forward to the opportunity to get some out-of-conference play and play another top-caliber team,” said Ferrell. “The way this season shook down with the problems in the Rugby East, our matches were limited, so we’re just excited to get the chance to play some more rugby matches this fall…It’s hard to imagine this is our fifth game and it’s the postseason.”
The time has given Penn State an opportunity to indoctrinate new players in a new system. The Nittany Lions have experienced some injury troubles and turnover, and Ferrell wants to modernize the team’s attack methods and get fitter.
“Through injuries and through some personnel, we have some young kids playing. We’ve been working really hard on changing things up a little bit on attack. The game’s played much flatter, much faster, and we’ve been trying to work on that and improve our attack. I think we were kind of stuck in a mold that wasn’t working for us anymore,” said Ferrell.
“I’ve been trying to implement changes over the last couple of years, and the players seem to be responding to it. We like to play a fast attacking style. We also got a new strength and conditioning coach, got a new weight room up here. I think the players are as fit as I’ve seen them in my time here, and I’m excited to see what that translates to on the pitch.”
Clemson is prepared to stand up to Penn State’s traditionally favored tight style, even though the Tigers have been considered undersized in the pack. But Hickey knows the Nittany Lions can move the ball wide, too, and that his team needs to be ready for anything.
“I know they typically have been a forward-oriented team, so we’ll focus our effort there defensively. But we know they have some good skill and some dangerous backs and we won’t get too caught up in their forward play,” said Hickey.
“I think we’ve got a fairly decent game plan to counter some of their strengths in their forward pack and also their midfield, so I think we match up fairly well kind of across the board with them, so I’ll be curious to see how the game takes shape.”
One intriguing match-up pits two standout freshman back rowers against one another – Penn State flanker Malcolm May and Clemson No. 8 Jason Damm. May is a tall, lean, athletic High School All American from St. Ignatius in Chicago, and Damm is a lesser known commodity out of Fort Mill, SC, a Charlotte suburb.
“He’s just kind of been a bit of a revelation for us. He’s been one that we’ve been really excited about,” said Hickey of Damm. “I think he’s only played one season of high school rugby, but he has the size and the instincts you don’t typically see in a freshman player.”
Another big match-up is that between both teams’ halfbacks. Clemson has a sophomore Gonzaga product at scrumhalf, Ryan Gilroy, who’s started every game since becoming a Tiger. At flyhalf for the Atlantic Coast Champions is Jack Rixon, an Australian exchange student. Penn State, on the other hand, lost standout flyhalf Blaze Feury before the season and has a pair of scumhalves, neither of whom have won the job outright.
“That’s something that hasn’t been as well executed as I’d like. The nine-10 exchange is important, and I think that’s something we’ve been focusing on lately in practice and away from practice, and hopefully it’s starting to improve and be a strength for us as it has been in the past,” said Ferrell.
“I think the nine-10 exchange for Clemson is one of their strengths, and that’s going to be an area that we’re going to have to look to be able to control and pressure, and hopefully we can have as strong a nine-10 exchange as they do.”
Both teams are looking for more games, Penn State because matches have been hard to come by and Clemson because they get to keep playing playoff games in the state of South Carolina as long as they win. And both wouldn't mind winning the first-ever American Collegiate Rugby Championship, so look for a highly competitive game.