The Tech rugby team continued its tradition of tackling, hitting and winning, concluding another strong season as it beat out Emory 28-7 last Thursday to win the conference championship for the third year in a row. With the three conference titles, along with berths in the South Region Championship each of the past two seasons, Tech has emerged as a power in Division II rugby.
This season’s success came despite a rash of serious injuries as the spring began. Co-captain Rob DeBernard and talented freshman Luke Leonard both suffered severe knee injuries that kept them from playing, veteran Mike Garcia broke his hand, and freshman Kyle Zeman separated his shoulder, thinning out a roster that seemingly lacked depth already. After three losses in the annual ACC tournament, many of the players felt like they would be lucky to win even one conference game this year.
The outlook was bleak, but thanks in part to the leadership of returning captain Max Groves as well as a dedicated team that overcame its inexperience, Tech’s season was anything but dismal. The team came out strong in its first conference game, earning a resounding 38-7 victory at the Burger Bowl over one of its biggest rivals, the Auburn. The big win made it clear that this mix of veterans and rookies could definitely function as a cohesive unit.
“[Rugby] is a mixture of football, soccer and a no-rules bar fight,” said team president Daniel Cooper, summarizing the team’s approach to each game.
A week later at the Burger Bowl, the Jackets faced one of their toughest opponents, Kennesaw State. The Owls were the early favorite to win the Conference after winning last fall’s Georgia Rugby Tournament. Though the Jackets were expected to lose by a large margin, they scored another upset, pulling out a 19-10 victory to improve to 2-0 in conference play.
Tech traveled to Statesboro two weeks later and found themselves in a highly physical battle with Georgia Southern. The game ended with a 17-6 loss, marking the first time Tech had lost a conference game in three years. The Jackets did not allow the loss to faze them, however, as they went on to clinch the conference title with the 21-point win over Emory the following Thursday.
The rugby program is growing at Tech, and because it is a club sport, the environment is more relaxed than that of a varsity sport.
“We’re a very jovial team. We practice hard and we train hard, but we have fun. [For] guys that come on if they want to just blow off some steam or just hit somebody, this is a very good place to do it,” Cooper said.
Despite the somewhat relaxed environment, rugby is a dangerous sport that involves a considerable injury risk, and a certain level of recklessness is definitely required to be successful. Over the past few years, players have broken their ankles, separated their shoulders, suffered torn ACLs, and worse. In one legendary instance, during the 2007 Tech-Emory game a player fell head-first into the ground, requiring surgery that night by CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Although their high tolerance for pain and love for aggression may indicate otherwise, the players exude a level of friendliness and class that some might find surprising.
“Whereas football is a gentleman’s sport played by ruffians, rugby is a ruffian’s sport played by gentleman,” Cooper said.
The rugby team is an inclusive group that welcomes new players.
“[Anyone who shows up] with cleats and a mouthguard, we’ll take him. Anyone can walk on. There are no tryouts to play,” Cooper said. “As we go into the fall season, we’ll be losing several long-time players to graduation … however, if this season is any indication of what we can expect, we have a great recruiting year to look forward to as well as the further development of many young key players.”