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Fordham Rugby Helps Grow Game on Big Stage

(Photo: Fordham University Rugby Football Club Facebook)

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If you watched the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, then you likely already know about the excitement generated by the sport of rugby. Rugby sevens, or the version featuring seven players on each side and seven-minute halves, made its debut appearance in the most recent Olympics with Fiji winning gold on the national stage.

Fast-forward to this summer and rugby sevens took center stage in Chester, PA for the fifth straight year. Talen Energy Stadium in suburban Philadelphia hosted its fifth consecutive Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship over the weekend. The eighth annual event featured two full-days worth of matches at the beautiful home of Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union. A number of trophies were up for grabs, with divisions including high schools and small colleges in addition to the featured squads competing in the men’s and women’s CRC competitions. In the women’s CRC final, Life University (GA) came out victorious against Lindenwood University to capture its second consecutive title. On the men’s side, the University of California-Berkeley defeated Life 19-0 for its fifth straight title.

Earlier on Sunday afternoon, the Fordham University rugby club faced Mount Saint Mary’s University in the Challenge Cup final for the right to an automatic bid into next year’s national championship event. The Rams advanced to the final after posting a 2-1 record in Philadelphia Division pool play on Saturday and a 19-7 semifinal victory over Rowan University on Sunday morning. The meeting with Mount Saint Mary’s in the final marked a rematch from one of Fordham’s Saturday pairings in pool play, in which the Rams blanked The Mount 21-0. Senior captain AJ Shoemaker, junior Vincent Brucculeri, and sophomore Max Zhitnik each recorded tries in the shutout. For those scoring at home, a rugby “try” is worth five points and a successful kick conversion (a drop kick in rugby sevens) counts for two points.  

The championship matchup was a physical and intense affair that saw the Rams jump out to a 12-0 lead on scores from Brucculeri and fellow junior Nathan Fisher. However, Mount Saint Mary’s refused to head into the two-minute halftime break without making some noise in front of the record-setting CRC crowd (37, 518 fans enjoyed the elite college rugby sevens action over the course of two days). The Mount’s first try of the title match cut Fordham’s lead to 12-5 with one minute and 30 seconds remaining in the half. The conversation attempt was no good, but the trailing squad added another try (and failed conversion) just before the break to make it just 12-10 Fordham at halftime.

Both clubs brought physical defense into the final seven minutes. After a scoreless three minutes and change in the second half, Mount Saint Mary’s broke through for a try that put the Mountaineers ahead 15-12 for its first lead of the match. That score held true after an intense final few minutes of action. The Mountaineers celebrated the Collegiate Challenge Cup title in front of a large contingent of the club’s supporters inside the professional soccer stadium. The Mount may have punched a ticket to next year’s big tournament, but the Fordham ruggers have nothing to hang their heads about. The Rams posted a winning record (3-2) in front of a crowd that included many die-hard rugby fans and numerous first-time spectators alike. As someone with just a bit of exposure to the game myself, I left the stadium feeling as though the event’s atmosphere revealed a lot more about the sport’s future than the final results even did.

Now, I’m not claiming to be any sort of expert who can accurately predict the future of a sport that I admittedly hadn’t covered prior to this past weekend. Two full days and more than 50 matches later; I still don’t think I know all the rules. But I do have a better understanding of why it is the fastest growing team sport in the country. Rugby boasts the traditional marks of teamwork and sportsmanship, with enough open-field jukes and truck sticks to consistently build the excitement of a long punt return in football.

With a newfound Olympic presence, don’t be surprised to see even more rugby coverage in the media in the coming years. It also doesn’t hurt that a sevens match is over in 14 minutes because, as we all know, attention spans today are shorter than ever before.

Fordham and all of the other rugby programs that competed at this year’s Collegiate Rugby Championship are certainly helping to grow the already growing sport of rugby with each and every match.