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Classic Matchup - Indiana v Penn State

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Classic Matchup - Indiana v Penn State

Penn State v Navy from earlier this season. Colleen McCloskey photo.

Two college rugby teams came out of the fall shining a little bit more than the rest.

That would be Penn State, which won the Rugby East, and Indiana, which won the Big Ten. Both teams are looking for some hardware this spring, with Penn State going into the Varsity Cup and Indiana thinking DIA playoffs. Both are hoping to unseat one of the favorites, and this weekend both play each other.

Their preparation for this non-conference playoff warmup has been different for the two. Penn State took a tour to Scotland and played three games against tough university competition there. Indiana, meanwhile, since their loss at Arkansas State, have been trying (and failing) to find games. The Wheeling Jesuit 7s was called off due to weather, which didn't help things.

"It's been a little frustrating because we know we're going to need that match fitness," said IU Rugby Club President Jacob Garwood. "We figure we'll be a little rusty. At least we've been able to gt outside to train, now."

Training inside has afforded the players only three hours of training a week. Now that they can go outside, it's more like six hours a week. Players have been working on their own, but they need time as a unit, too. After their loss to Arkansas State, where IU was close until the final 15 minutes when they gave up four tries, they have been working a bit more on having the fitness to finish out games. But they also just need to play.

"We have three pretty challenging games in the next three weekends against Penn State, Notre Dame, and Notre Dame College, and we know that even if we don't come out with a win this weekend we still feel it will be productive and help us see where we are," said Garwood. "We want to win every game, but we know at the same time these games don't make or break our season. We're working hard this week but we know if we lose we're still going to come back and work hard and see where we can get better."

IU is healthy and at full strength except for the loss of hooker Michael Weimer to injury. Bryce Campbell, who missed a chunk of the fall and February playing for the USA national team (he was first capped against Romania in November and was capped four times during the Americas Rugby Championship, as well as the non-cap game against the Argentina XV), is back. Asked if the IU team was worried that Campbell would pick up an injury in one of those tough international matches, Garwood just laughed.

"He is an animal," said Garwood. "He's looking as good as ever. He's good at avoiding injuries because he's the one delivering the hits."

Penn State, meanwhile, has had plenty of game time, beating West of Scotland, Strathclyde University, and St. Andrews on their tour. They then took last weekend off before this game. New Head Coach James Willocks likes what he sees.

"Scotland was a great experience, with a great finish against St. Andrews in an excellent game that really pushed us," said Willocks. "From a rugby perspective the conditions dictated to a certain extent the style of play. It was great to see us adapt to those conditions and play some smart rugby and ultimately come out on the right side of the scoresheet. It was great to spend the time as a squad, particularly for me to get to know these guys well and to experience the rugby culture in a Tier 1 rugby nation."

Willocks wanted to see his team behave well and he got that, too.

"The whole squad were great and were great global ambassadors for the game and for Penn State," he said. "We received really positive feed back from all our opposition regarding our actions on and off the field."

So now it's back to domestic rugby, and you get the feeling that they are a team with one purpose. 

"This weekend versus Indiana, we hope to continue to build from where we were against St. Andrews and continue to build for our first round Varsity Cup game at Harvard," said Willocks. "Indiana is a very well coached side with a range of talented payers so we are excited for the challenge. It is a great opportunity to implement and fine tune a number of the areas we have been working on as a squad the past few weeks."