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BYU Leading the Way in College Rugby

6 May 2013 Brett Richins
BYU celebrates its third national championship.

BYU celebrates its third national championship.

As Jonny Linehan’s last-second drop goal sailed through the posts to give BYU a thrilling 27-24 win over rugby powerhouse Cal in the Varsity Cup national championship game on Saturday, what the 4000-plus fans at South Field witnessed was the dawning of a new era in collegiate rugby.

For decades, the sport was dominated by Cal. Coming into the inaugural Varsity Cup, the Golden Bears had won 26 national championships dating back to 1980.

During that time the program has produced 126 All-Americans, 43 members of the U.S. National Team and a half-dozen Olympians.

BYU was known for its rugby as well, but for decades the Cougars could not compete for a national title because of the fact that the championship was traditionally played on Sundays. However, in 2004, the game was switched to Saturday, opening the door for BYU to finally show what it could do.

Within three years, the Cougars became a regular fixture on the national championship scene and have appeared in eight-straight title games. They narrowly fell to Cal 29-26 in their first appearance in 2006. But three years later, BYU got its first breakthrough against the Bears, coming out on top 25-22 in 2009 for its first-ever rugby national title.

Saturday’s win over Cal was the Cougars’ third national championship in the last five years, and their first as a member of the newly-created Varsity Cup division of collegiate rugby. The mighty Bears have been forced to slide over and make room for another 800-pound gorilla in the sport in BYU.

The worldwide footprint of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the presence it enjoys around the Pacific Rim and Polynesia helps to bolster the BYU program with some of the best young players from across the Pacific. Three New Zealand natives, Linehan (Auckland), Ray Forrester (Tapawera) and Paul Lasike (Auckland) have played major roles recently in the success of the program.

BYU assistant coach Kimball Kjar says that BYU’s ability to draw players from around the world has helped lift the program to the pinnacle of college rugby.

“You look at the resources that BYU has, that the LDS Church has with its network and reach within Polynesian communities, around the Asia-Pacific and around the world. There’s no reason why BYU, which has a global footprint around the world because of the Church, can’t utilize rugby as an opportunity to get its brand out,” says Kjar.

That talent from abroad is combined at BYU with the rich local talent that is produced by the powerful youth rugby programs in the state of Utah. In fact, nearby Salt Lake City is home to the famed Highland Rugby program that has produced a myriad of national championships and some of the best young rugby players in the country each year. Given the level of talent available, it is no surprise that BYU would eventually challenge Cal for supremacy in the sport.

Not only has BYU made its presence felt on the the field in recent years, but the program is currently leading the way into a new brave new world in college rugby. Cougar head coach David Smyth was instrumental in the creation of the new Varsity Cup, which attracted seven other top college rugby programs in its first year of existence, representing the winners of 32 of the previous 34 national championship games.

BYU essentially spearheaded the creation of the Varsity Cup in an effort to establish higher academic and eligibility standards for the club-level sport. Some of the top programs have also been unsatisfied with the oversight of USA Rugby, which attempts to administer dozens of rugby championships at various levels with relatively limited resources.

A disagreement with the national organization in regards to missionary service further spurred BYU into taking the lead in a new direction. The NCAA and NAIA organizations allow student athletes to take time away for religious, military or other service such as the Peace Corps, without that time counting against a players eligibility. Current USA Rugby rules do not provide such a provision, with the eligibility clock for athletes starting when they are 18 and running for five consecutive years.

Next season, the Varsity Cup will add Texas to its ranks and Utah will likely come on board after serving a school-imposed suspension for the rest of 2013.  Another dozen top programs have also inquired about joining the new division. With BYU leading the way, there is a new era dawning in college rugby–and if the past several years have been any indication, Cougar fans should have a lot of fun watching it unfold.

Here’s a look back at the final minutes of BYU’s thrilling victory over Cal on Saturday…

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