Many people travel to Las Vegas in hopes of hitting the jackpot. This week, the Yale men’s rugby team will also head to Las Vegas looking to win big — on the pitch.
On Wednesday, 12 members of the team will travel west to compete in the Las Vegas Invitational, a national sevens tournament that brings together 32 collegiate rugby teams from across the country each year. The competition is a Collegiate Rugby Championship qualifier. The winner of the tournament earns the last slot in the USA Sevens CRC tournament, in which the top 16 collegiate rugby programs faceoff for the national championship title.
Sitting in a room on the second floor of the “historic” and “charming” rugby house on 17 Edgewood Ave., team members Nick Finger ’12, Rob Morse ’12 and John Lesnewich ’13 said the team has one clear goal for the tournament.
“We’re going there to win,” Finger said. “Obviously it’s going to be challenging, but we’re just trying to win as many games as possible.”
“We wouldn’t go if we were trying to finish in 16th,” Lesnewich added.
The Bulldogs will look to improve on last year’s seventh place finish in the tournament where they advanced to the quarterfinals before falling, 19–7, to Bowling Green State University.
Yale, which finished sixth in the Ivies last fall, will open the tournament with matches against the three other teams in its pool: defending champion Central Washington Univerisity, Weber State University and Indiana University. In order to advance to the elimination round, the Bulldogs will have to finish as one of the top two teams in the pool.
Though Finger acknowledged that getting a draw in a competition that includes Central Washington will be difficult, he added that Yale will probably be a school the Wildcats will overlook, which might play to the Bulldogs favor.
“We’re going there with the feeling that we can play with anyone,” Morse said. “Sevens is only 14 minutes long, and anything can happen. You get a couple of bounces your way, and you can be knocking off the defending champions, no problem.”
Unlike traditional rugby, in which 15 players from each side are on the field and compete in two 40-minute halves, sevens rugby pits just seven players from each team against each other in two seven-minute halves. Because there are half as many players on the field in sevens, teams have more space to move the ball around and find gaps to exploit on the field.
The Bulldogs hope their speed will allow them to take advantage of the extra space during the competition.
“We have a lot of really fast players that we didn’t have last year,” Finger said. “The forwards we have going are also strong, so it’s a good combination of players that can set up plays and also guys who are fast enough to score in a lot of different scenarios.”
In preparation for the tournament, members of the team have been holding four official practices a week, though many of the players continue to train on their own on off-days. The Elis split their time between training at Payne Whitney Gym and practicing at the Connecticut Sportsplex, an indoor facility in North Branford.
Although team members take competing seriously, they enjoy that rugby is not normally as heavy a commitment as a varsity sport.
“It becomes a big part of your life at Yale, but as opposed to a varsity sport, it doesn’t dominate it,” Sam Teicher ’12 said. “We do train hard, we work hard, but it’s not all-consuming.”
The team is gearing up for two more exciting competitions after Vegas.
Each year during spring break the team embarks on an international tour to a rugby-playing country to play some games and bond as a team. This year, the Bulldogs plan to travel to Barbados.
The team also concludes its season with a competition against alumni for the Walbridge Wager, which is a trophy named for a former South African captain of the team that features the head of a Cape Buffalo. During the alumni weekend, the team’s top players face off against a group of younger alums while less experienced players take on an older crowd, players who might be up to 70 years old.
“You have guys with humongous beards and top hats,” Lesnewich said.
In games such as these unlike the upcoming Vegas tournament, the main focus is on camaraderie rather than competition.
The balance of serious competitions and time-honored traditions has made rugby a defining feature of the members’ time at Yale.
“It’s sort of just been an awesome experience at Yale,” Morse said. “The last four years, by far the thing I’m going to look back on most is playing rugby. I can’t imagine life at Yale without it. I think a huge portion of the team feels that way.”
Yale opens the Las Vegas Invitational with matches against Weber State and Indiana on Thursday at 9:40 a.m. and 12:40 p.m., respectively. The Elis will then faceoff against defending champion Central Washington on Friday at 9:20 a.m.