The Yale rugby pitch boasts a new vitality this fall.
After victories at the end of October against Middlebury and Coast Guard in the New England Ruby Football Union Championships, the Bulldogs (10-0) continue their uncontested domination.
This weekend, the Bulldogs will play Middlebury in the semifinals of the Northeastern Tournament, which captain Michael Atkins ’05 called a “do-or-die” situation: one that will decide whether or not the team continues to Division II Nationals in the spring. The game follows the Elis’ win over Colgate 37-5 in the tournament’s quarterfinals last weekend. The Bulldogs qualified for the Northeastern Tournament by clinching first place in the NERFU tournament at the end of October.
This season represents a departure from past years in which decisive contests with Coast Guard and Middlebury often resulted in season-ending losses. Two full-time coaches and improved training equipment, such as a scrum machine, may be responsible for the team’s improved record. Even more essential are the players themselves, with contributions stemming from both new talent and seasoned veterans from places as diverse as England and South Africa.
Coming off victories against both Coast Guard Academy and Middlebury in the regular and post-seasons, the team refuses to succumb to hubris, Atkins said.
“I think we’ve had confidence all season,” he said. “Now we’re the team to beat in the Northeast. At the same time, we realize that we can’t be complacent and must improve our game.”
Two wins over Coast Guard Academy, the team’s chief rival, best exemplify the turnaround. The contentious relationship between the teams, termed an “unfriendly rivalry” by Atkins, stems from an incident two years ago involving then-captain Micah Block ’03. Block was kicked in the face and sustained injuries that required four surgeries and eight months to recover.
Ever since that moment, the two teams have preserved an undercurrent of distrust.
Coast Guard and Yale first faced off four years ago when they began playing in the same league. Atkins said Coast Guard has been steadily improving since that time.
Flanker Nick Moscow ’06 said he cannot bring himself to repair the rift between the teams.
“I don’t just dislike them. I hate them,” Moscow said.
Although team members have differing opinions about why their team is suddenly winning against their most formidable adversaries, there seems to be a general consensus that the team is showing considerable growth in its level of play.
“We have stepped up a new defense,” Moscow said. “We really didn’t have a defense last year. Our plays are pretty much the same. Our backs are really executing their plays better than before.”
A return to the basics and increasingly coordinated plays are essential components of the change, scrumhalf Jesse Wolfson ’07 said.
The coaching dynamic has changed with the increased presence of now full-time coach Jan Pikul, who was sidelined last year due to an injury, and the addition of assistant coach John Broker specifically to coach the forwards. This year marks the first in which two coaches have been present at both games and practices, a crucial element for the team and one that has allowed the captain to attend to his responsibilities as a mentor rather than an authority.
“We never had that consistency on this team,” Atkins said. “I see my role more as being a leader on the field as opposed to running practices.”
Pikul said the source of the momentum can be found in a psychological transformation. The repeated losses to teams like Coast Guard and Middlebury in past years took a mental toll on the players, Pikul said.
“Their dominance puts the team in a mental rut,” he said. “A mental toughness is what we’ve really been working on the past year and a half.”
The team heads into the Northeastern Tournament with confidence and foresees favorable prospects for the National Championship, Wolfson said.
“The whole team really wants to go to Nationals,” Wolfson said. “Coach has been training everyone pretty hard.”
A steady regimen of practice — three times a week for two hours at a time — requires dedication of the members of this club sport, reserve lock Scott Proctor ’08 said.
“The practices are pretty intense for a club sport,” he said. “When it’s necessary, we really buckle down to what we have to do.”