Rugby hopes for strong season in new conference

Former USI rugby flanker Ray Van tackles a member of the IU rugby during the 2016 season. The 2016 USI rugby team competed in nationals in Colorado.

The USI rugby team is making a change this season. The team is no longer going to be in the Indiana Rugby Football Union or IRFU, and instead, the team is joining the Midwest Colleges Regional Conference or MCRC for short.

Being in the MCRC doesn’t take USI out of the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO), which functions like the NCAA for some college rugby teams.

With the change from IRFU to MCRC, the team hopes for a more stable season and less forfeits from the other teams they play.

“Last year’s conference was not very consistent. We have Saturday games and we’d have a lot of people cancel on Thursdays, Fridays and occasionally on a Saturday morning for whatever reason,” Dave Lepp, rugby team president, said. “We’ve moved into a much more consistent league. It’s a little more spread out, which means more traveling time, but I don’t see anyone in our league not fielding 15.”

Since the NCAA doesn’t oversee club sports like college rugby, it falls to the students to recruit players, and since anyone can join the team, that means some players leave after a few practices, which makes hitting that magic number of 15 difficult for some schools.

That’s why joining a new conference was a priority for Lepp and the rest of the team. Now that the team is a part of a new stable conference, there also comes a higher level of competition the team expects to play against.

Though the team hasn’t played against any teams from the new conference yet, the new group has one game played together. The team played an exhibition against the University of Louisville on Aug. 26.

Lepp, who’s in his final season with USI rugby, said the team experienced some “first game jitters” during the 54-29 loss to UL, but he doesn’t expect this to be a trend moving forward after the team gains more experience.

“We lost a lot of starters last year, so getting the flow of people playing together is really important,” he said. “That really helps identify problems, plus gain additional chemistry for the future of the season.”

Even though the team is reeling from the loss of starters, Lepp said the team still has high expectations for this season, like they have every year. This is a team two years removed from a third place finish in the NSCRO Final Four.

Aside from Lepp, junior Connor MacLean-Kennedy, the team vice president, was also on the NSCRO Final Four team.

He said he expects the new players to pick up the game fairly quickly and, even though playing soccer or football helps with grasping the concepts of rugby, they aren’t required.

“Even for someone that’s never really played a sport before, it doesn’t take too long to get it,” MacLean-Kennedy said. “The team is really good at supporting new guys and showing them where they need to go.”

For MacLean-Kennedy, the rugby team was a huge factor in his decision to attend USI and since the team went to the NSCRO Final Four during his freshmen year, he expects rugby to sway more students into attending USI.

“People are starting to look at this school as a competitive rugby school,” MacLean-Kennedy said. “We have freshmen coming in specifically because they want to play on the rugby team here.”

The regular season opener for the rugby team is Sept. 9 against Western Kentucky University at the USI Rugby Field.