With just a little less than a month left in Blacksburg, before we move north to Canton, New York, I feel compelled to write about rugby, and the team that has been a huge part of my life for the last six years. Also, after this past weekend's victory at the Atlantic Coast Rugby League Sevens, (and a distinct lack of media coverage) I wanted to say how proud I am of Virginia Tech rugby - all its players coaches, admin staff, fans, parents and alumni. Also, I want to take this opportunity to explain what has happened with the Virginia Tech Men's rugby team over the past four years - what we have done differently, and how I think this could be replicated elsewhere.
Virginia Tech beat Clemson in the final 26-19. But because they were beaten in pool play by the Tigers on Saturday, despite beating both Virginia and North Carolina, this meant they needed to get past Notre Dame in a play-in game first, before beating Maryland in overtime of the semi-final on Sunday. Clemson got to the final with a tight win over Boston College - all teams had to deal with monsoon like conditions most of the time.
Clemson have had an incredible year in fifteens getting to the quarter-finals of the Varsity Cup the week before, only losing by one point to the Naval Academy. Because of Virginia Tech's win over Maryland, Clemson had qualified for the Collegiate Rugby Championships, and even if they lost to the Hokies (who were invited last fall) they would be appearing on the big stage in Philadelphia at the end of May. However, the way the Tigers came out in the final, you wouldn't have thought so. Looking to add a Sevens title along with two ACRL Fifteens wins in 2013 & 2014, Clemson scored first. The Hokies replied only for Clemson to go ahead again. then Virginia Tech got hold of a loose pass to tie it all up in the second half. The deciding moment came when a Tigers player kicked the ball away at a penalty and was yellow carded. Sevens experience took over as the Hokies took full advantage and scored 14 unanswered points. Clemson scored again when they were back at full strength, but it was too late, the Hokies had their second ACRL Sevens title.
Of the four tournaments the Hokies have played in this spring, they have finished second twice and won two, including this title and last weekend in Blacksburg. Now all that is left is the CRC in Philadelphia. This current team is talented, has experience, athletic runners and like most ACRL teams this past weekend, was not up to full strength. The fact that two of the fastest players in the team were not available due to injury adds a little polish to this weekend's win. With a little luck, a good six weeks preparation, and with a favorable pool draw, I see no reason why the Hokies cannot get to the quarter-finals this time around. Last year, despite coming second in their group, the Hokies missed out on the quarter-finals by points difference to Penn State. Coach Craig Bucher has got the team playing clever Sevens rugby and captain Paul Caron has been running the fitness regime and masterminding things on the field. The future looks very bright for sure. Go to Philly and support your Hokies.
Since 2012, the Hokies have won two ACRL titles (2012 & 2015) and have twice lost in semi-finals either in sudden death OT (2014) or the last play of the game (2013). This success has come about because in May 2012, a deliberate change in attitude towards Sevens was adapted. Sure, I suggested it, but it would not have happened if it were not for 100% commitment from everyone involved with the team.
The 2009 decision to include Rugby Sevens in the 2016 Olympics and subsequent emergence of the NBC broadcasted CRC were major factors. We knew that Virginia Tech was a big brand named school and we would be ideal for the CRC. So like every other ACRL teams we did our best to qualify through the ACRL. But in 2010 and 2011, despite having a talented and well coached team, the Hokies came up short on both occasions. So in 2012, we changed things up.
After the end of 15s spring league games, we assembled a Sevens team together, came up with some common goals and spent the last few weeks of the spring semester going back to the basics. We committed to two tournaments in the summer (Richmond and Cape Fear) winning our division at both. Then we got ready for the ACRL Sevens Series which started that fall. We had our ups and downs, we suffered with injuries and learned a lot on the way, and by the ACRL championships in Virginia Tech were underdogs for sure. Reduced to a one-day event because of Hurricane Sandy, the Hokies beat North Carolina and Maryland before ending two-time champions NC State's run in the semi-final. Because UVA had beaten Navy in the semi-final, the final was set up perfectly - the winner was going to the CRC. Riding their luck and showing great determination, the Hokies overcame a 31-19 deficit with 2 minutes left to win with the last kick of the game, 33-31. Now, almost three years later, with a seasonality change in place for fifteens and sevens, and fantastic support from the Recreational Sports Department, parents and alumni, the Hokies are playing Sevens in the spring and this May will be heading to Philly for a third time in a row.
Developing Sevens at Virginia Tech as a separate entity from fifteens has been successful - some other schools are doing the same thing. The fall is Fifteens, and as soon as school is in session in January its Sevens tryout time with the remainder of the fifteens team playing fifteens tournaments and matches through the spring as separate team. Despite being a club sport, the Sevens players have been treating themselves like Varsity athletes, training between eight and ten times a week, 7am sessions in the gym with a hired S&C trainer and two nights a week on the athletic track too. Have there been problems? Yes, for sure. Its taken a while to fully integrate the fifteens team into the same system but hopefully, this fall you will now see a difference. The fifteens team has been working very hard, and will surely soon be rewarded.
Now every school is different, and this will not work for some. At big schools like Virginia Tech, how far you take it will be limited by many things that are simply out of your control. But getting a smaller number of players to commit to being student-athletes as dedicated as any varsity athlete, has been easier to do here. Putting an emphasis into Sevens has raised the level of awareness in the program throughout the school. Hopefully this will continue well into the future, and those that come after me, can replicate the comparative success in we've had in Sevens, with success in fifteens.