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Michigan Win 1st Step for Fighting Irish

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Michigan Win 1st Step for Fighting Irish

Colleen McCloskey photo.

So what's going to happen at Notre Dame?

That, really, is the question for fans of Fighting Irish rugby. After the revitalization of the rugby club in South Bend, the program produced an All American and pro in Nick Civetta (who should be, and probably will be, capped soon), and some impressive early results, only to plateau somewhat in recent years. With support from alumni and the college, and solid coaching and good athletes, and a new facility, all the pieces were there. The Irish produced some close losses to good teams, and seemed competitive most of the time, but couldn't quite explode on the scene the way many expected.

Now, with a new coaching staff, one wonders if it will be different. At the helm starting this fall is Justin Hickey, who helped make Davenport a varsity program, and then produced some impressive results for Clemson. Assisting him will be, among others, Kruger van Biljon, who succeeded Hickey at Davenport and worked with him in Grand Rapids. It might be a case of getting the band back together, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Hickey's team's first outing was a solid one, with Notre Dame defeating Michigan 40-31 this past weekend. Notre Dame were the stronger in the first 60 minutes and won the battle at the breakdown, but also knew Michigan would mount a comeback. Up 28-12, the Irish saw thw Wolverines rebound.

"What really made me happy," said Hickey, "was how they hung onto their composure. Michigan has a backline that can score anytime their have good ball. We tried to prevent them from getting that, but we knew there' d be a time when they'd get it. But our guys held on."

Among the top players were hooker Luc Joseph, who was a USA U20 player, and Gonzaga HS product Patrick McMahon at No. 8. Those two made the lineout function nicely and played well around the field. They have some good freshmen, too, including scrumhalf Jake Randle, who played at Jesuit-Sacramento. But the weird thing about rugby at Notre Dame, said Hickey, is that there's a significant pool of athletes at Notre Dame who played rugby in high school. Those athletes are being brought into the program, and with Notre Dame known for having as many as half the students at the school having played varsity sports in high school, and with a high percentage of those having been captains of their HS sports teams, there are athletes on campus.

"We've got athletes," said Hickey. "We just have to establish the program as something they want to be a part of. We want rugby to be a resource. We want commitment and we want to play tough games, but it's also important that the players have fun."

Notre Dame has Cincinnati, Dayton, Bowling Green, Navy, Grand Valley State, Northern Illinois, and Davenport this fall. It's a good combination of tough, physical teams, and really tough teams. Navy is a natural rivalry, and the men's team is looking to build on other natural rivalries (Boston College, for one). It's not a conference schedule, and the Varsity Cup, while a harsh mistress for the Irish of late, is still their post-season.

"We asked the players whether they wanted to be in a conference, or if they felt there wasn't enough motivation in playing an independent schedule, and they said this is what they wanted," said Hickey. "We don't talk a lot about winning on this team. We just are trying to build on what Sean O'Leary did and get better. And we're looking to find our identity."

It could be that such an identity is one of a very good college rugby team somewhere in Indiana. We should expect no less.