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Varsity Cup Opening Round - The Games, The Previews

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Varsity Cup Opening Round - The Games, The Previews

Air Force (blue and gray) and Arkansas State (red and black) don't play each other, but they do play this weekend. David Barpal photo.

The Varsity Cup starts this weekend, with 14 teams involved in some way, and a variety of mat chips in the opening round.

Here’s a look at the teams and the matchups:



The Cougars are defending champions and have a bye into the quarterfinals.


Air Force at UCLA

The Zoomies have been on fire this year, although the flame was doused somewhat by a 7s loss to Arkansas State in Las Vegas and a 15s loss to Colorado State. They are athletic, aggressive, and fast - exactly what you’d expect them to be. 

UCLA has been up and down. On their best days they defend bravely and can produce some of the best open-field team rugby you would want to see. They have some talent, but somehow consistency has eluded them. Air Force can surprise them, and the Zoomies have the ability to score two or three tries in the first ten minutes. If they do, they can upend the Bruins.

And early defensive stand from UCLA could work wonders for their confidence.


Oklahoma at Utah

Oklahoma has had to pull out because of sanctions imposed by USA Rugby on use of ineligible players during the fall. Utah gets a bye.


Arizona State at Central Washington

This is our featured game of the weekend. CWU has had a weird season in that most of their conference college games have been comfortable victories (although who would be comfortable with a 132-0 result we don’t know) mixed with some educational losses against the Seattle Saracens men’s team.

Arizona State has had perhaps the antithesis of a schedule. ASU plays as tough a schedule of games as anyone, with St. Mary’s, Cal, Utah, BYU, and San Diego State. Will that toughening help them?

“We learned a lot playing Seattle,” said CWU Head Coach Tony Pacheco. “Such as how to play when you’re not going forward every single phase. Or how to tackle every single time. Our defensive shape was really good, and usually when they beat us it was because a player had just too much size and power. We had to get creative with the possession we got, and that was useful to us.”

Vili Toluta’u has been a try-scoring machine for CWU with Zach Siemens, Clint Lemkus, Gavin Schag, and Dan Conklin also big-scorers in a team that runs with power and speed.

ASU Head Coach Gary Lane has his team coming off a tough loss to Utah, where, he said, “we learned we have to compete at the breakdowns better. We must come up harder on defense, and make sure our back row is not such in as much.”

Those will all be key components of a Sun Devils defeat of Central Washington.

“We know CWU are a tough outfit, and this is our first Varsity Cup match, so we will enjoy the experience regardless. I am very proud of the team for getting us to this point.”

This could well be an upset opportunity for Arizona State, but CWU is playing at home, and has essentially be working toward this game for six months.



Cal, as defending runners up, have a bye into the quarterfinals.


Notre Dame at Texas 

This is a tough game for most to pick because the teams themselves have had off-and-on seasons, mixing in 7s and 15s as they work their way through the late winter. Notre Dame did well to come close against Arizona, and have been in good form in 7s at the same time. Texas has been playing games, but the results are inconsistent. What’s exciting about this game? It’s on Friday night, live streamed . It’s an event, Longhorns v Fighting Irish, which is nice. Kickoff 6:30pm Central Time.


Arkansas State at Clemson

Both Clemson and ASU can point to impressive results, and also to little slips. This is our other featured game, because it is a tough game to pick. (It will also be live-streamed  2pm ET, at

“We're feeling pretty good,” said Clemson Head Coach Justin Hickey. “The spring is always a challenging time with many interruptions - weather, spring break - and can be difficult to get a full docket of games, so it's tough to really get into much of a rhythm. When we're at our best, we're a very good team, but we can struggle with consistency at times.”

Both teams can say they’re the underdogs.

Coming off a shutout loss to Life University, Arkansas State is a bit stung.

“ A lot of our veteran players were injured prior to that match, and Life was more productive in their execution when they had the ball than we were,” said ASU Head Coach Mani Delaibatiki. “Regardless of injuries, its still not an excuse, but our young guys have learned from that, and we are using this game against Clemson to rectify and fix our errors and get back to playing Arkansas State-style rugby.”

Both coaches voiced great respect of the other team. Both are well-run programs. So this will not be a game where players take it lightly.

“We have no illusions,” said Hickey. “They may be a bit battered and bruised, but they're one of the top rugby teams in the country, and it's going to take our best shot on Saturday to beat them. As I said, I believe in this team, and I believe they will be up for the challenge on Saturday.”

“We pride ourselves in self belief, regardless of experience,” added Delaibatiki. “And if we do the basics right, play aggressive both on offense and defense and minimize our errors, we give ourselves a good chance to win. It all comes down to who fights the hardest for 80 minutes will come out on top on this one. Only time will tell.”


Navy at Dartmouth

Two more wounded teams. Dartmouth got shellacked by St. Mary’s in a game last week. The Gaels took apart the Big Green and that game was supposed to be a buildup game for this weekend. Harsh lessons about ball security and containing an explosive attack for the Ivy-Leaguers.

But Navy got a harsh lesson too, as they lost to their arch-arch rivals, Army. This followed on with losses to Wheeling Jesuit and Life (and a win over Clemson). What Navy learned was that they need to be able to finish the game better, and they need to finish scoring opportunities better. They have a solid halfback combo, but they need to contain wide attack. Dartmouth has some exciting backs, but are they strong enough up front?