By Leland Mitchinson, Daily Sports Writer
Published June 1, 2015
Going into the Collegiate Rugby Championship this weekend, the Michigan rugby team had the goal of a top-eight finish for the second year in a row.
The Wolverines put on an impressive performance on their way to achieving that goal and taking fifth.
Beginning the tournament in a pool with Arkansas State, UCLA and Texas, Michigan opened play against Arkansas State with the rugby community watching to see if its success from the year before was anything more than a one-hit wonder.
“Last year was considered a fluke that we made it there,” said Michigan coach Brandon Sparks. “This year we were largely discredited by almost everyone in the rugby media.”
Concerns that the team would not be able to reproduce its success due to a weak conference schedule and injuries going into the tournament seemed to be legitimate after Michigan lost to the Red Wolves, 17-5.
However, the Wolverines bounced back and showed that they can play at the highest level, leaning on their defense in their 17-12 victory over UCLA and their 29-10 defeat of Texas.
Michigan added some good offensive play throughout the tournament to go with their stout defense, with senior Sequoyah Burke-Combs finishing pool play as the second-leading tri scorer in the tournament.
The Wolverines had the misfortune of having to face the two-time defending national champions, California, in the quarterfinals and the Michigan team was simply outmatched, falling 31-0. Despite the big loss, the Wolverines were able to bounce back from a poor first half to limit the Golden Bears to a single tri in the second.
Cal would go on to win their third championship in a row with a 17-12 overtime win over Kutztown.
“Cal has the best collection of rugby talent in America,” Sparks said. “Where we recruit largely from the general student body, they are a varsity program, so they can bring players in that are rugby-specific.”
Michigan’s rugby club has a long history, though the college-specific team did not begin until 2000, and the team has only been playing the seven-on-seven version of the sport competitively for two years.
“Most of these teams have had legitimate sevens programs for 10-plus years,” Sparks said. “There is a big learning curve with sevens because it is a lot different than the traditional game of fifteens.”
Though the team is relatively young, there is a strong culture around the program.
“It starts with the sport,” Sparks said. “There are no true superstars in the sport. There are good athletes that are made to excel in their environment because of their teammates. The sport is the foundation of it all.
“From there it is the players themselves, the level of accountability that they hold themselves to both on and off the field sets that standard, on time, be positive, don’t do anything to embarrass the shirt or your last name … it’s the players themselves constantly trying to be better on and off the field.”