A little more than a week ago, the Harvard Rugby team--in spite of its reputation as one of the best teams in the Northeast--had not been invited to the Collegiate East Coast Rugby Championships, held this past weekend at Blacksburg. Va.
Justtwo days ago--on Sunday--after the ruggers had secured an invitation and disposed of Cornell, 16-3, and Princeton, 12-11, in Saturday's early rounds, referees and tournament officials predicted that the Crimson still had little chance against Navy in the semi-finals and was the least likely of the four remaining teams to win the tournament.
But later Sunday afternoon, after Harvard had dumped Navy, 11-7, and then crushed Army 26-12, in the final match, captains John Dorgan and Al Halliday accepted the tournament trophy, making Harvard the 1981 Eastern Collegiatc Champions.
The tournament win allows the ruggers to vie against three other regional winners for the national crown on May 9-10.
Roy Roberts the president of the rugby club, attributed the Crimson's ability to eliminate Navy, Army, and Princeton--the top three finishers last year and this year's top seeds--to "gritty team play and heart."
Keith Oberg, the team's hooker and past scrum captain, characterized the weekend as a "culmination of an impossible dream: three years ago, a fifteen game unbeaten streak and a shot at the national title seemed impossible."
He added that the Crimson opened up its final contest against the Cadets "by playing with the verve and energy previously missing in our play in the tournament," saying, "we felt that the cup was ours to win or lose."
And, in fact, after the ruggers had lost the early momentum by barely missing 12 points worth of scoring opportunities, and Army had tied the score at 6-6, it looked like the squad might lose the tournament after all.
But Harvard quickly struck back for three tries and opened up a 16 point lead by playing what one referee called "the most intelligent college rugby in the U.S."
The scrum, led by the inspired play of Ed Montgomery. Al Halliday, and Dave Suave, made up for past mediocre showings and played with what wing forward Greg Carey termed "their full intensity for eighty minutes." Tournament Director Joe Franklin called the Crimson backs "possibly the best ones in East Coast college rugby."
Earlier in the day, frightened by a near loss to Princeton the previous afternoon, the ruggers built up an 11-0 lead twenty minutes into their semi-final match against Navy and held on to break the midshipmen's 16 game winning streak with an 11-7 victory.
For the last fifteen minutes of the contest, Harvard warded off repeated Navy attempts to score a try from within the 25. At one point, Suave and Endicott prevented a tally when they pushed a Navy scrummer backwards out of the end zone before he could touch the ball down.
Saturday afternoon, in what Oberg termed the team's "worst match since the Charles River Cup against Dartmouth last spring," the ruggers allowed the Princeton forwards to control all but the last three minutes of the quarterfinal contest. But, Harvard broke back to defeat the Tigers 12-11 in an effort wing forward Bill Looney termed "divine intervention."
With time running out in the contest. Harvard fly half Sabin Willet and fullback Dorgan combined on a 60-yard run which resulted in a penalty try when Dorgan was head-tackled short of the goal line. The infraction allowed team scoring leader Charles W. A. Bott to kick the conversion from directly in front of the goalposts, instead of having to put the ball through the uprights from a very difficult angle near the sidelines, where Dorgan probably would have scored the try.
Following the ensuing Harvard kickoff. Endicott smother-tackled the Princeton team captain just as he received the ball, allowing Harvard to advance ten yards before knocking the ball forward.
"Oberg made the most important play of the tournament by extending his hooking leg far into the Princeton side of the scrum and stealing the ball" from the Tigers with about thirty seconds to go, Halliday said.
After Princeton was called for foot-up thirty yards from the try line, an errant Tiger attempted to block a Bott drop-kick before retreating the required ten yards. Bott later said his scoring attempt--coming from about 30 yards out--would have failed if the Princeton player had not tried to block the kick and committed a penalty in the process.
His resulting 20-yd. penalty kick sailed through the uprights with no time remaining, and moved the Crimson into the semifinal showdown with the Midshipmen, which took place the following day.