Eight very good to excellent college rugby teams match up this weekend in the first Varsity Cup.
The format is simple – this weekend is the quarterfinals, with the semis coming a week later, and the final in Provo May 4.
It’s a very simple, clear set of games; here’s a look at how we handicap them:
California v. Notre Dame at Annapolis, Md.
Notre Dame has played a tough schedule this year, facing off with Arizona, Arizona State, and Davenport. All were close games, and the first two (a loss and a win) were common opponents with Cal. The Bears beat both the Wildcats and the Sun Devils convincingly, and there’s little expectation that this game will be any different.
Yes Cal has been struck by some injuries, but the players who have stepped in have stepped up. They are still playing well as a unit, and only the most pessimistic might point to a little shakiness in their defense in recent games, where they gave up 60 points in their last two games.
Cal has several of the best players at their position in the collegiate game. Cal by 40.
Navy v. Dartmouth at Annapolis, Md.
One of the big stories is that of Michael Burbank, the Dartmouth captain who has been denied the ability to play because he spent too much of his eligibility time serving in the US Marine Corps. The Varsity Cup has different eligibility rules, counting a player’s eligibility time from when he starts college, not when he graduates from high school.
Still coming back from an injury, Burbank was not a sure starter last time we checked, but if he plays, he will be a massive addition for the team. As a former Marine, playing against the Naval Academy will have a special meaning for him.
He also has a big job, as Navy, with Jack McAuliffe at flyhalf and Seamus Siefring at center, will test the inner channels of the Dartmouth defense. Burbank will be one of the players expected to shut those two down.
And Navy needs to shut down Madison Hughes, Dartmouth’s sparkling fullback. Both McAuliffe and Hughes are excellent goalkickers, and this game could come down to a three-pointer. Pick ‘em.
BYU at UCLA
The BYU Cougars are not coming into this game with the ideal buildup, as they didn’t get to play Utah in the Wasatch Cup due to Utah’s suspension. But they are still a formidable team. They are hugely physical, and especially punishing in open-field tackles. Led by Ryan Roundy and Kyle Sumsion in the back row, the Cougars are formidable.
The Bruins can play and were impressive in their win over Utah. Their defense will have to be excellent, and not only that, will have to hold on for 80 minutes. They can do that, and then they let their athleticism, especially their speed shine, they can show why scoring 50 against Utah was no fluke. Their halfback combo of Grant Penney and Ben Francis will be key. BYU by 35.
Central Washington v. Air Force at UCLA
Central Washington has power up front, and plenty of skill in the backs, but one wonders if they have the depth. A loss of one player to a yellow card (Patrick Blair) and one to an exam, shook them up against St. Mary’s, and for the Wildcats to beat Air Force they need to keep it together and execute even if they are missing a player or two.
Meanwhile, Air Force has some superb talent. Jack Bristol has pace and well as height at lock, and Austin Halle is a very useful flyhalf. Their recent victory against Texas A&M is a crucial one for them because it gave them a challenging game just in time for the Varsity Cup to start.
Air Force has speed and quickness. Larry Lundin is playing excellent rugby at No. 8, getting their offense started, and Erick Schreck is their top scorer from center.
Zach Dennis is stepping in as an injury replacement at prop, he will have a lot of work to do. Pick 'em.