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As Intense a Rivalry as You Can Get

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As Intense a Rivalry as You Can Get

Look for a college sports rivalry that’s more intense than Clemson v South Carolina, go ahead, look for one; the chances are, you won’t find it.

“The in-state rivalry between Clemson and Carolina has been going on for over 100 years,” said USC Head Rugby Coach Mark Morris. “You could equate it to Auburn-Alabama or Florida-Georgia, but what adds to it is that this is such a small state. It’s not just geographic. You see families divided. It’s tooth and nail.”

“It’s a huge rivalry, more intense than Michigan and Michigan State,” said Clemson Head Rugby Coach Justin Hickey, a native Michigander. “This is Southern football country and there’s a lot of passion behind it, and there’s no pro sports in the state and that fuels it even more. There is no middle ground. You are either Clemson or you’re South Carolina. That’s it.”

Thanks to the fat that for a few years they were playing at different times of the year, Clemson and South Carolina haven’t faced each other for some time. So you can imagine how happy everyone was when Clemson won the ACRL, and South Carolina won the SCRC - the rugby equivalents of the ACC and SEC football conferences. Saturday, it’s Tigers v Gamecocks in the ACRC Bowl Series in Charlotte, NC.

The last time they met was the 2012 DIAA playoffs. Each team is thrilled to renew the acquaintanceship.

“Tennessee or Alabama would have been great too, but everybody was kind of hoping it was going to be South Carolina,” said Hickey.

Clemson has ramped back the rugby over the last few weeks. They defeated Maryland convincingly to clinch the ACRL, and then gave their players time to heal, concentrate on schoolwork, and prepare for this weekend.

“The sessions we’ve had have been short and sharp,” said Hickey. “We feel good about how we match up again SC. We’ve been working on keeping the guys fresh and focussing on what we do well.”

It’s been more intense for South Carolina, which is just coming off a two-game weekend to win the SCRC. That victory wasn’t always a sure thing, especially after the Gamecocks lost to Tennessee in the regular season. But Morris said he felt his Gamecocks played well enough to win that game in certain areas, and just couldn’t quite get their continuity going.

“I never thought we’d lose to Tennessee,” said Morris. “But it might have been the best thing that happened to us because the guys stayed hungry. They have worked hard all season and are all getting better at playing their individual positions, and playing as a group. We re-focussed on winning the SEC, and it worked out. Now we have a shot at Clemson.

USC has lost the services of two captains. Fullback Tim Hammil broke his collarbone last week and is out. Lock Zack Gorman is doubtful, and would be a huge loss as he is a massive presence in the lineout, on restarts, and in the ruck.

But scrumhalf Brian Keown has been a revelation this year and leads the team in tries by a wide margin. If the forwards get the Gamecocks close, Keown is money. Zach Mullineaux will be a worked in the lineout, while Mike Mahon is a power runner at No. 8.

“We’re a balanced team,” said Morris.

For Clemson, the key might be their deep three, which will have to handle any kicking and counter effectively to win the field position game. They will be without loose forward Jason Damm, who is at the USA U20 camp. But senior prop Kevin McKeown will partner with prop Max Simons and they have a chance to put their stamp on the game. Freshman Drew Dommel has taken the wing job and made it his own, while sophomore fullback Aaron Keers is a strong goalkicker. Lock Jimmy Rippert is outstanding, as well, while scrumhalf Ryan Gilroy is a worthy rival for Keown from USC.

Both teams have strong tie to Charlotte’s excellent high school rugby programs, and it’s expected that this game will have a big crowd. But any rugby fan, or fan of college sports, should want to have a look. These are two top teams in good form, and who don’t like each other at all. What’s not to like?

Notes: The ACRC Bowl Games will be webcast- We are finalizing details, but Goff Rugby Report will host the games on our Youtube Channel. Stay tuned for final details.