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Changing Landscape of College Rugby Creates Shifts in NCR Competitions

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Changing Landscape of College Rugby Creates Shifts in NCR Competitions

Thomas More and Marian clashing in 2021. These two teams are moving to a new varsity-only league as NCR's DI and DII competitions adjust to the changing landscape. Stphen Oldfield photo.

College competitions within National Collegiate Rugby are expected see a few changes and shifts as the swirling currents of the collegiate game combine and split different clumps of flotsam.

Men's DII

Most of the Men's DII college rugby was under the aegis of NCR and that was the driving reason why we at GRR used the term "national champions" when talking about their playoffs winners. The DII is expected to expand a little bit with the DII section of the SCRC (reportedly) joining NCR. That was one of a small number of DII conferences and teams that weren't in NCR. The other that plays in the fall was Rocky Mountain. All that does is expand what is already basically an all-encompassing division for NCR.

NCR started as the organization for small-college teams, and that has been their bread-and-butter for years. DII rugby is a fairly logical step for the organization.

One issue that NCR ran into last year was the Varsity program issue. Now, this wasn't their fault, as the growth of new varsity or school-supported rugby teams was happening whether NCR was oversight or not. But what happened was that in the fall of 2021 the teams with lots of school funding behind them did especially well. Three of the top four teams, including champions Thomas More, were varsity programs. Being a varsity program in and of itself doesn't mean you aren't DII—Norwich has been varsity for some time but their male enrollment around 2,400 is significantly less than Northern Iowa (the one club team in the final four) and just a little bit less than that of IUP, the team Norwich beat to make the semis.

Even so, the complaints were heard and notes, and the Big Rivers Conference was formed with Thomas More (2021 D2 champs), Adrian (runners-up), Aquinas (incoming varsity program), Marian (close loss in quarters to UNI), Wheeling (former DIA program on a rebuilding track), and Iowa Central CC (a two-year program that's struggled to find a home). This conference will be considered DI. So what that does is bring the DII competition back to serving the teams it's expected to serve: smaller schools with some school support; club teams at schools that don't normally play DI in other sports; club teams with virtually no support at major universities that for reasons of isolation, funding, and club size seem to fit better in DII.

(That last designation is why we see UNC Chapel Hill, Virginia, and perhaps NC State in DII.)

Men's DI (Both Kinds)

Last year NCR split the playoff pathway for DI teams in the middle of the season. This was a response to the realities of the competitive balance within the conferences but it was a little odd to do it mid-season. In the end they were probably right—teams pulled up to the DI playoffs did well and teams channeled into the DIAA (probably now DI Club) playoffs were in the right spot. 

Really the only truly odd thing was that NCR opted not to do this in Small College, where Siena and, to a lesser extent, Babson were better suited to the small-college upper-level than the Challenge bracket.

This year, the splits are likely all decided before the season starts.

The Liberty Conference is, reportedly, going to split into tiers with one tier going to the DI playoffs and the other going to the DI Club playoffs. The other conference that was split mid-season last fall, the Chesapeake, exists no longer as most of those teams have joined a large and imposing Rugby East.

Ah yes, Rugby East ... each team is expected to decide which organization it aligns with. Most, of not all, will likely pay for membership with NCR and with USA Rugby, and then it's a case of which will declare for the DIA playoffs. But that's another article for another time. There will be teams from Rugby East that will join in a major playoffs with Liberty's Tier I, the Ivy League, maybe one or two independent teams, and ... the Big Rivers.

Remember those guys we mentioned above in the DII section? Yes well they can't be in the DI club playoff ... they're not clubs. Big Rivers faces an intriguing challenge.

The DI playoff in 2021 was a work in progress in some respects, with a team that finished 3rd in its conference, St. Bonaventure, ultimately winning a playoff that did not include the teams that finished 1st and 2nd. In DIAA (now likely DI Club), a team that finished 5th in its conference, Virginia Tech, won. The high teams in VT's conference tracked to the DI playoff.  (Additional note: VT looks to be tracking to the DI Club playoff again this year, just to shake things up.)

The picture seems to be a little clearer this year.

This fall, the DI Club playoff pathway will include chiefly Liberty's Tier II, the MARC. This level of play is split all over the country among different organizations. Some of those are independent and we might see those independents gravitate to NCR.