The Yale men’s rugby team entered this spring as the sixth-ranked squad in the Ivy Rugby Conference. But after a winter of hard work — and a small stroke of good fortune — the Bulldogs will now be representing the Ancient Eight in a national championship tournament.
On Sunday, the Elis earned the conference’s automatic bid to the USA Rugby Men’s DI-AA National Championship tournament in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 25 by emerging victorious in a four-team Ivy League playoff this weekend at Brown. Yale handily defeated Cornell, the playoff’s heavy favorite, 34–5 on Saturday before battling to an 18–13 win over Brown yesterday.
“[The berth] is a real statement of how we turned the program around, and how a culture of hard work among the players and excellent coaching has resulted in a huge turnaround in the team’s fortunes,” said Louis Metcalfe ’16, president of the Yale Rugby Football Club.
The four-team playoff tournament was initially required because Dartmouth, the Ivy champion from the fall, opted instead to participate in the Varsity Cup Championship, a competition among other national programs, captain John Donovan ’16 said. Columbia, the fifth-ranked team, then chose to drop out, giving Yale a chance to compete for the Ivy berth.
Though Cornell was favored to win over a team that barely snuck into the playoff, Yale quickly reversed that perception. The Elis jumped out to a 17–0 lead midway through the second half and put the game away well before the full 80 minutes were up.
Donovan said that because rugby is such a tiring and physical sport, the Bulldogs’ points early in the second half wore down Cornell and prevented the Big Red from being a threat at any point.
“They’re a big, physical team that I honestly expected to steamroll us,” Donovan said. “We just outplayed them. We were just as physical as they were with the tackle, and they had no other options in their play. They were expecting to dominate us and couldn’t.”
Metcalfe added that Yale’s strategy, which it had worked on extensively before the game, allowed Yale to neutralize Cornell’s strengths and expose its weaknesses.
He said the team had been mentally preparing for the fate-determining game since November.
“We knew they had a very good forward pack, and we were expecting them to come at us very physically,” said Joe Murdy ’15, last year’s captain. “We tried to spread them wide, where we knew they were a bit weaker, and we did that to great effect.”
Yale’s toughest opponent was then seemingly out of the way, but its contest against Brown the next day proved a much more level battle.
The Bears kicked for an early 3–0 lead after a Yale penalty midway through the first half, but both defenses held up for the remainder of a physical opening period.
But the Elis played with the wind at their backs in the second half and quickly took advantage, scoring two quick tries to start the half and eventually taking a 12–8 lead that they would never surrender. Two successful kicks made the score 18–8, and a Brown try late in the game was not enough to tie the score again.
“This Brown team was more determined than the Cornell side,” Metcalfe said. “They realized that this was the final chance that they had to play in the national championship. It was really tight and nerve-wracking throughout the whole 80 minutes.”
Metcalfe highlighted the individual performance of Graham Harboe ’15, who was involved with the team only as a videographer and photographer until two weeks ago. Harboe began training with the team over spring break and scored a try in both games over the weekend — the first full rugby matches he has ever played.
For many players on the Yale team, the wins and national championship berth reflect a revival of the Yale Rugby Football Club under its new coach, Greg McWilliams.
All four players interviewed credited McWilliams with an increase in the intensity of practice and training this winter. Donovan noted that while the team struggled to get 10 players to each practice during its winless 2013 Ivy season, roughly 30 or 40 players would regularly attend training sessions this year.
“I can’t emphasize enough how the culture of the team had changed with the addition of Irish rugby coach Greg McWilliams,” Will Hall ’15 said. “His rugby knowledge and positive, technical approach to the game has made us a more confident team. That was big [on Sunday].”
The Bulldogs can now look toward the opening round of the national championship, in which they will play West Virginia on April 25.
While Yale’s performance in the tournament will be important, Murdy noted that the long-term goals of a Yale Rugby Football Club on the rise are more important to its players.
“We’re going to take it game by game, do analysis on how they play and then play it as it comes,” Murdy said. “We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves with our goals. The goal of the program is for this not to be an unusual thing, to be what happens year in and year out.”