Rugby Club Rides Upsets Into Final Four

By ROBERT A. CACACE

CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

The Harvard Rugby Football Club launched itself into the national spotlight this weekend in Stanford, Calif. as it upset two higher-seeded teams at USA Rugby’s Sweet 16 Tournament, the equivalent of an NCAA championship tournament.

Its 36-29 defeat of No. 2 Utah and 53-29 defeat of No. 10 Penn State opened the door to the Final Four.

Harvard, seeded No. 15 after losing its regional match-up against Army in the fall, shocked Utah on Saturday before steamrolling Penn State on Sunday.

The wins over such strong competition came as a surprise to some players.

“I looked around at the boys after the Utah game, and they were in a bit of disbelief,” said freshman center Tim Naylor. “We were very excited to have played that well.”

However, the performance of one of Harvard’s most successful club sports and oldest teams—the Club was founded in 1872—should come as no surprise.

“This is the best rugby I’ve ever been a part of,” said Naylor, the freshman center who has been playing the game since he was a 10-year-old boy in Wales.

Harvard has not been this deep in the tournament since 1993, when the team’s trip to the Final Four netted a third-place finish. The program, which won a national title in 1984, had a fall from grace in 1998 when it was kicked off of campus for disciplinary reasons.

Hard work and strong dedication to the athletic aspects of the sport have righted the ship’s course, and allowed the squad to come a long way in a short time. It now finds itself in the company of No. 3 Air Force, No. 4 Navy and the top-ranked, perennial champion Golden Bears of the University of California at Berkeley.

Harvard will return to Stanford in two weeks to take on Army, who is the only team to beat the Crimson this year.

Harvard 53, Penn State 29

After its monster upset over Utah, there was certainly reason for complacency to set in against Penn State, but Harvard maintained its focus throughout the match and ran over a bigger Nittany Lions team to surge into the final Four.

The underdogs opened the match with a flurry of scores, and headed into halftime with a 36-5 lead.

Naylor led the way with two tries in the onslaught.

When Penn State came out after intermission, it was almost as though they had conceded the game.

Harvard kicked off in the second half, but sloppy play by Penn State enabled it to recover the ball and kick for three points.

“It almost seemed like Penn State had given up at that point,” Harrington said.

Though the Nittany Lions made a push, the match was never closer than 39-17.

Harvard 36, Utah 29

The second-seeded Utes got far more than they bargained for when Harvard took the field.

The Crimson possessed the ball for much of the first half, and surged out to a 17-5 half-time lead.

“ Harvard did a great job of maintaining their own ball and denying the opposition any offensive opportunities,” said co-captain Ben Blaskus in an e-mail. “[We] used aggressive forward play to suck in the opposition’s defenses, then found opportunities to run the ball wide with the backs.”

Indeed, Harvard’s strong back play was too much for Utah to handle, and smart play from the forwards allowed the Crimson to maintain possession even after tackles.

Speedy backs like Naylor, who had two tries in the match, were able to run past the Utes and rack up points.

Thirty minutes into the second half, Harvard had a commanding 36-5 lead and made substitutions.

Utah capitalized on the Harvard change, scoring several tries to narrow Harvard’s lead.

“We might have gotten a little complacent, and let down a bit mentally toward the end of the game,” said senior wing J.C. Harrington. “They made it close, but we were comfortable with our lead throughout the game.”

It’s Gotta Be the Field

One of the most important reasons, according to players, that Harvard was so successful was due to the weather and field conditions.

Compared to the often rocky and muddy fields that the club team uses at Harvard, Stanford’s fields were idyllic.

“They were beautifully maintained,” said junior wing James Sterling Foreman. “It was like playing on a putting green.”

The favorable field conditions enabled the speedy and fit Harvard squad to outrun their competition.

Without varsity status, Harvard does not have access to many of the amenities that the Department of Athletics offers its 41 programs.

One of those amenities is superior facilities. Another is the ability to recruit. The Harvard Football club is not populated with highly touted prep schoolers from around the nation, but athletes defecting from other sports and taking to the pitch for the first time.

The most important resource that the Harvard Rugby Football Club is denied is big-time funding.

Though the club sports program at Harvard contributed to the cost of the trip to the Sweet Sixteen, it was financed heavily by rugby alumni. Without a permanent coaching staff, players must make travel arrangements and organize the trip themselves.

Harvard’s burden on that front is greater than that of some other teams left in the championship hunt. Cal is the only team to enjoy varsity status and all of the attendant benefits conferred by that status.

No matter what the designation within the Department of Athletics, the Club’s recent victories are a big step towards proving that it belongs among the national elite after years of regional success.

The Crimson now hopes to avenge its earlier season loss to Army, and is riding enough of a hot streak to make that outcome possible.

“We’re playing so well right now, and the field conditions will be to our advantage,” Foreman said. “Army is a big team, like Penn State, so we’re hoping to exploit our fitness and run by them.”

The Final Four gets underway at Stanford on May 3 with a rematch of the Northeast Regional Finals.

Players have already started making plans for the trip.

—Staff writer Robert A. Cacace can be reached at cacace@fas.harvard.edu.

The Harvard Rugby Football Club launched itself into the national spotlight this weekend in Stanford, Calif. as it upset two higher-seeded teams at USA Rugby’s Sweet Sixteen Tournament, the equivalent of an NCAA championship.

Its 36-29 defeat of No. 2 Utah and 53-29 defeat of No. 10 Penn State opened the door to the Final Four.

Harvard, seeded No. 15 after losing its regional match-up against Army in the fall, shocked Utah on Saturday before steamrolling Penn State on Sunday.

The wins over such strong competition came as asurprise to some players.

“I looked around at the boys after the Utah game, and they were in a bit of disbelief,” said freshman center Tim Naylor. “We were very excited to have played that well.”

However, the performance of one of Harvard’s most successful club sports and oldest teams—the Club was founded in 1872—should come as no surprise.

“This is the best rugby I’ve ever been a part of,” said Naylor, the freshman center who has been playing the game since he was a ten-year-old boy in Wales.

Harvard has not been this deep in the tournament since 1993, when the team’s trip to the Final Four netted a third-place finish. The program, which won a national title in 1984, had a fall from grace in 1998 when it was kicked off of campus for disciplinary reasons.

Hard work and strong dedication to the athletic aspects of the sport have righted the ship’s course, and allowed the squad to come a long way in a short time. It now finds itself in the company of No. 3 Air Force, No. 4 Navy and the top-ranked, perennial champion Golden Bears of the University of Californai at Berkeley.

Harvard will return to Stanford in two weeks to take on Army, who is the only team to beat the Crimson this year.

Harvard 53, Penn State 29

After its monster upset over Utah, there was certainly reason for complacency to set in against Penn State, but Harvard maintained its focus throughout the match and ran over a bigger Nittany Lions team to surge into the final Four.

The underdogs opened the match with a flurry of scores, and headed into halftime with a 36-5 lead.

Naylor led the way with two tries in the onslaught.

When Penn State came out after intermission, it was almost as though they had conceded the game.

Harvard kicked off in the second half, but sloppy play by Penn State enabled it to recover the ball and kick for three points.

“It almost seemed like Penn State had given up at that point,” Harrington said.

Though the Nittany Lions made a push, the match was never closer than 39-17.

Harvard 36, Utah 29

The second-seeded Utes got far more than they bargained for when Harvard took the field.

The Crimson possessed the ball for much of the first half, and surged out to a 17-5 half-time lead.

“ Harvard did a great job of maintaining their own ball and denying the opposition any offensive opportunities,” said co-captain Ben Blaskus in an e-mail. “[We] used aggressive forward play to suck in the opposition’s defenses, then found opportunities to run the ball wide with the backs.”

Indeed, Harvard’s strong back play was too much for Utah to handle, and smart play from the forwards allowed the Crimson to maintain possession even after tackles.

Speedy backs like Naylor, who had two tries in the match, were able to run past the Utes and rack up points.

Thirty minutes into the second half, Harvard had a commanding 36-5 lead and made substitutions.

Utah capitalized on the Harvard change, scoring several tries to narrow Harvard’s lead.

“We might have gotten a little complacent, and let down a bit mentally toward the end of the game,” said senior wing J.C. Harrington. “They made it close, but we were comfortable with our lead throughout the game.”

It’s Gotta Be the Field

One of the most important reasons, according to players, that Harvard was so successful was due to the weather and field conditions.

Compared to the often rocky and muddy fields that the club team uses at Harvard, Stanford’s fields were idyllic.

“They were beautifully maintained,” said junior wing James Sterling Foreman. “It was like playing on a putting green.”

The favorable field conditions enabled the speedy and fit Harvard squad to outrun their competition.

Without varsity status, Harvard does not have access to many of the amenities that the Department of Athletics offers its 41 programs.

One of those amenities is superior facilities. Another is the ability to recruit. The Harvard Football club is not populated with highly touted prep schoolers from around the nation, but athletes defecting from other sports and taking to the pitch for the first time.

The most important resource that the Harvard Rugby Football Club is denied is big-time funding.

Though the club sports program at Harvard contributed to the cost of the trip to the Sweet Sixteen, it was financed heavily by rugby alumni. Without a permanent coaching staff, players must make travel arrangements and organize the trip themselves.

Harvard’s burden on that front is greater than that of some other teams left in the championship hunt. Cal is the only team to enjoy varsity status and all of the attendant benefits conferred by that status.

No matter what the designation within the Department of Athletics, the Club’s recent victories are a big step towards proving that it belongs among the national elite after years of regional success.

The Crimson now hopes to avenge its earlier season loss to Army, and is riding enough of a hot streak to make that outcome possible.

“We’re playing so well right now, and the field conditions will be to our advantage,” Foreman said. “Army is a big team, like Penn State, so we’re hoping to exploit our fitness and run by them.”

The Final Four gets underway at Stanford on May 3 with a rematch of the Northeast Regional Finals.

Players have already started making plans for the trip.

—Staff writer Robert A. Cacace can be reached at cacace@fas.harvard.edu.