A strong regular season doesn’t necessarily lead to playoff success, a lesson the Wisconsin men’s rugby team learned the hard way in its Elite Eight loss to the Davenport University Panthers in the USA Rugby National Playoffs last weekend.
Following a regular season that consisted of mostly blowout victories, the Badgers earned their first ever Division I-AA playoff victory Saturday against Missouri before eventually falling to the reigning national champions in a heart-wrenching loss Sunday. Both matches took place at Wisconsin Rugby Sports Complex in nearby Cottage Grove.
After a strong showing to begin the tournament led to a Badger rout over Missouri, 51-3, in the round of 16, the Panthers proved to be too much for the Badgers to overcome in the team’s Elite Eight matchup. The 34-11 loss was only their second of the year.
Wisconsin, which came into the playoffs with high expectations, finished its season with a near-perfect 10-1 record, and before the loss Sunday was ranked No. 11 in the nation for its division according to a poll by rugby-mag.com. Still, as any talented team knows, when expectations are that high, oftentimes the hype can be hard to live up to, especially with a championship on the line.
“One of the big terms that we have used this season in games and practices is complacency,” sophomore Kurtis Shepherd said. “We have a bad tendency sometimes to become content with where we are at, and we always need to continue to push ourselves. You can never think past the next game.”
As is the case with many of the club sports at the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere, club-level status can often lead to funding disadvantages that give some opponents a huge leg up in their ability to recruit athletes from all across the nation and, in this case, all over the world.
“There are only a few colleges in the United States that get a lot of funding, and so most of the teams out there are club sports,” head coach Skip Heffernan said. “Davenport [University] is an example of a small school that decided to put some resources into rugby.
“[As a result], they have some rugby scholarships, and they have been able to get some good players, sometimes foreign athletes, like [from] South Africa, to play for them.”
The sport of rugby is not new to the UW campus. The first rugby team on campus, founded in 1962, contained a mix of both undergraduate and graduate students and served as a way for local rugby enthusiasts to get a chance to play. Since then, rugby’s popularity on campus blossomed and led to the creation of the UW Rugby Club soon after. This year, the club currently boasts more than 50 members.
At the collegiate level, the sport of rugby is played by teams consisting of 15 players with the main goal being to attempt to score a “try” by touching the ball down past the opponent’s goal line. This earns a team five points and allows it to take a conversion kick for two more points. It is also possible to score three points by converting a field goal.
While to many this scoring system might sound very similar to a certain beloved American sport, the rugby team is quick to point out which sport came first.
“Football originated from rugby,” senior captain Ben Knight said. “I know it is pretty foreign to most people, but there are a lot of differences [between the two] also. It’s a continuous game like soccer, but there is a lot of contact like football, which makes the sport unique.”
One big factor in the Badgers’ success this season has been the level of experienced student-athletes the team has been able to bring into the club over the last few years. Many of the student-athletes that are currently on the team developed passions for the sport in high school and had four years of high school rugby under their belts before even arriving on campus.
“I’ve been playing for six years,” Knight said. “My sophomore year of high school a couple of my friends started playing, … and they told me I would love it because I always enjoyed the physical aspects of sports. I tried it out and fell in love immediately.”
Still, the team’s success hasn’t come easily.
The Badgers put in countless practice hours, play matches on weekends and spend much of their free time committed to their sport in addition to their coursework. Yet, despite all of that, for these student-athletes it’s all worth it.
“It’s just really fun,” Shepherd said. “A lot of people get a rush from being able to do something that they aren’t normally supposed to do. How often does someone tell you to go hit somebody? You’re not normally allowed to do that, and that’s what makes it fun.”