Top college teams battle for the title in the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships

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The ultimate prize in college rugby is at stake when the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships get underway this weekend (June 3, 5 p.m. ET and June 4, 1 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The two-day Rugby festival features the best Men and Women’s college teams of the country facing off in Philadelphia’s Talen Energy Stadium. California enters the tournament as the favorite as the school has a competition-leading four titles and is the defending champion but there’s plenty of storylines to follow at the event:

1. Can University of Wisconsin’s star twins lead the school to glory?

UW hopes stars and local kids Hunter and Tyler Crass translate their high school success, winning three state rugby titles together, into the collegiate level. If not, junior playmaker Dane Fleck will be asked to pick up the slack. It’s a role he’s familiar with as he helped the team rally from two tries in two minutes to beat Utah in the Plate semifinals last year.

2. Richelle Stephens, Lindenwood University’s Olympian, hopes to make her mark

Stephens represented the USA in the Women’s Olympic Rugby Sevens competition in Rio last year, a side that finished fifth. She also has a Silver medal from the U.S.’s strong showing in the Toronto 2015 PanAm games. The 20-year old hopes to put her school’s Rugby program on the map and will be leaning on two freshmen in Teresa Bueso-Gomez, who has been playing the sport since she was 9 years old, and Caring De Freitas, who left Venezuela during its current turmoil to study Computer Science. She has also has national team experience with her native country.

3. Will California repeat?

California and Dartmouth had the most Men’s representatives in the Rio Olympics and it definitely shows in the results for Cal. Danny Barrett in particular is a star to keep an eye on during the tournament as he shined in Rio and wants to continue that in Collegiate Rugby Championships. However, if the team is to repeat it will also need  Anthony Salaber to have a big tournament as well.

4. Will Rowan University’s Philly, South Jersey-natives make an impact?

The University has seven players from the Philadelphia and South Jersey area participating in the competition.

Here’s notes on some of the team’s competing: 

Indiana University Men’s Team: Bryce Campbell has been the captain of our team for both 15s and 7s since 2014 Fall season…He has been a regular All Big Ten first team since 2014. He became an All American Collegiate Last Summer (2016) and was called up to the USA A side in the beginning of last Fall…he was called into the USA Eagles team…He played against the Maori All Blacks, Romania and Tonga last Fall. He is with the current Eagle squad winning three straight games against Uruguay, Brazil and Canada.

Drexel (men):  Frankie Lazaukas. Tore his ACL prior to last season’s CRC and is set to return early April to make a run at this year’s team. Both Ben Goldblatt and Ben Senns are Seniors in the ROTC program at Drexel.

Life University (women): N’Keiah Butler missed the fall because she was in basic training for the Air Force reserves. She spent all summer volunteering to teach rugby in Jamaica. She is the hardest working and selfless person on the team.

Indiana (women): Sydney Hugus is a freshman from Indianapolis…last summer she played on the U-18 East All American team, she played 4 years of high school rugby.

Kutztown (men):  John Sage, a senior from Severn, MD, will have made an appearance in each of the past four CRCs. A high school hockey player, Sage discovered a love for rugby late in his high school career becoming an all-star standout in the DC metro area, and decided to hang up the skates to focus solely on rugby in college…Vetekina Malafu, a senior from Maui, Hawaii, known as the “flyin’ Hawaiian” will make his third appearance in the CRC. This past fall, Malafu traveled to Australia with the All-American squad, and was a featured speaker while on tour. Malafu, a high school standout in football and track, he is a constant threat with open field or obstacles in front of him…Alex Fasion-Donahoe from Portland Oregon…Two time USA Falcon Team Member, he was a member of Falcons 2016 & 2017 Tours to South America.  He was also a USA All-American four times. Twice in 2015 & 2016. Each year selected for 15’s and 7’s.

UCLA (men): Niall Barry has been a standout player for the UCLA program since his arrival to Westwood in 2013. One of four boys to an American mother and Irish father, Niall was born in the United States but grew up in London, England and started his rugby career at a young age. He eventually graduated on to play high school rugby at the prestigious Hampton School in London. Niall’s mother, Maureen, and father, David, decided early on that their boys would go to college in the US, and after bumping into UCLA head coach Scott Stewart at an airport, Niall eventually decided on UCLA. Ever since his arrival in LA he has been a feature of UCLA Rugby, becoming a stand out on both the 7’s and 15’s teams and eventually becoming the school’s leading 7’s scorer in his junior and senior years. Thanks to his American citizenship, Niall became an integral part of the USA All American and U-20 programs, representing the Eagles on tours across the globe, including a 2016 tour to Queensland with the Men’s Collegiate All Americans. His younger brother, Cian, also landed on UCLA only a year after Niall, he too rising through the ranks of UCLA rugby to become a key player on both UCLA’s 7’s and 15’s teams. Most notably, however, Niall has been the captain of UCLA Rugby 7’s and 15’s since the 2015-16 season (his junior year), leading the team by example and helping the Bruins reach last year’s CRC Finals.

Boston College (men): Willy Hock is currently a junior at Boston College, starting at hooker for the Eagles in 15’s while playing a little bit of everything for the 7’s squad. Willy is from the Los Angeles area, having played high school rugby at Loyola High School along with the Santa Monica Rugby Club. He was recently voted Captain of the Eagles for the upcoming season…Danny Schatzman is currently a senior at Boston College, starting at Wing for the 7s squad after a successful fall at outside center. He is from San Jose, CA where he played under head coach Matt Gallagher at Bellarmine College Preparatory his junior and senior year. He served as Captain for the Eagles this fall, as well as earning 1st team All-Conference in the ECRC.

Tennessee (men): David Nuckolls…Senior, Sports Management, Newman, GA…Played football Hutchinson Community College prior to transfer to UT; backup tailback behind Alvin Kamara who also transferred to UT and is projected to go in the 2nd round of the NFL draft this year.

Army (men): Sr. Andrew Fargo played rugby in New Zealand for The Crusaders, a professional team, over the summer in 2015. Last season, Fargo sustained an injury that kept him off the pitch for the spring and this year’s fall season as well, but has recovered and will be back for the 2017 spring…Senior Jeff Malm-Annan was originally born in Ghana before coming to the United States…Junior Jon Kim originally came to West Point as a recruit for the football team as a kicker. He made the seamless transition to Rugby this fall, powering Army’s offense and setting multiple career varsity records in a single season.

Penn State (women): Rachel Ehrecke, From Iowa her area only offered 7s so she came to Penn State not knowing 15s. Grew tremendously her freshman year to be a hard hitting outside center with an eye for the gap. graduating a year early with a degree in economics…Corinne Heavener has worked hard to come back for her final year after two consecutive ACL tears.

Arkansas State (men): Blace Walser picked up rugby late in high school playing for the Union high school rugby club in Tulsa Oklahoma a highly-touted club nationally in high school rugby. Along with being a standout rugby player he was also the starting Linebacker for Oklahoma football powerhouse Union high school winning state championships. He was also touted as one of the best wrestlers in the state and country while at Union high school earning himself a full scholarship to wrestle for one of the best wrestling programs in the country Oklahoma State University which currently has the most Wrestling championships of any other school in the country with 34 National titles. Blace competed at Oklahoma State University as a wrestler before missing the game of rugby and deciding to return to the pitch for a shot at playing rugby at the collegiate level. He opened his recruiting this time as a rugby player drawing interest from many top rugby programs around the country he decided on Arkansas State University would be his choice. Originally coming to play at the center position he soon found his home on the pitch at the Flanker position which led to him becoming one of the best Flankers in the country leading the team in tackles and forced turnovers over the past 3 seasons and being invited to the USA Rugby Collegiate All American Camp.

Fordham (men):  Maxim Zhitnik – Prop (Rising Junior): from Manhasset, NY.  Maxim is the best athlete on the team and has truly started to grasp the game of rugby, after picking it up his freshman year.  His father is Alexi Zhitnik, former USSR and NHL Star.

Saint Joseph’s (men):  Jimmy Wolfer (’17) –  From Xavier HS in NYC and has played in the Collegiate Rugby Championship every year (3) he has been at Saint Joseph’s. Recently selected for an All American Assembly out in Chula Vista.  Captain of Hawks Rugby, excellent player. 2016 Keystone 15’s MVP…Noah Niumataiwalu (’20) – Freshman from Archmere Academey in Wilmington DE.  Plays like a season vet. Also recently selected for an All American Assembly in Chula Vista. His Dad is a former Eagle and helps coach at Saint Joseph’s. His brother, Selby, plays at Penn State.  Won the HS CRC two years in a row with Archmere…Chris Curcio (’18) – Another Archmere Academy player.  Plays wing for the Hawks. Fast player and comes from a great family. His parent’s Pete and Tina Curcio are very supportive of the program.

Virginia Tech (men):  Michael Cirbee returns for his 4th consecutive CRC. He attacks space well, and puts others through with his sharp passes and experience.  Thomas Whitaker, a wrestling convert, is an all around athlete.  His athleticism and tackling abilities make for a strong sweeper and excellent play maker. John Gerard is the speedster and was a 60-400m sprinter at Virginia Tech.  He now is a seasoned rugby player and will be the finisher on the wing.

Temple (women):  Victoria Rasp- Junior in theraputic Recreation in the School of Public Health. Plays inside center during the 15s season and center during the 7s season as well. She can think on her feet, is a good leader on and off the field, and uses her height and speed to her advantage. This will be her first CRC’s tournament she is attending but makes it to most every practice and puts in the hard work to make this first opportunity count…Molly Italiano- Sophomore in Finance in the Fox School of Business. Molly plays flanker in 15s and is a forward in 7s. She is a hard hitter, and although she has only been playing for two years, this will be her second CRC’s appearance. She torn her MCL and miniscus for a second time last year and fractured her wrist this year, but even with time out of practice she keeps up her strength and conditioning by still practicing cross fit in the gym. After both injuries , she came back ready to play and returned to the team with a smooth transition like she had never missed a practice.

Northeastern (women):  Sarah Levy was originally born in Cape Town, South Africa, but grew up in San Diego, California where she played soccer and softball for the majority of her childhood. Her father’s family all played rugby, which led her to join the team at Northeastern as a freshman. Over the summers, she plays at home with the San Diego Surfers. She has been the 7s Captain of the Northeastern program since her second year in school. Sarah is a Health Science major with a minor in Exercise Science and plans to go to physical therapy school after graduating in 2018; Caroline Angele grew up in Hershey, PA with her older sister Liz and parents Alan and Susan. She was accepted into Northeastern University’s program where she studied in Melbourne, Australia for a semester during her freshman year. During her travel, she watched Australian-style rugby and decided to join NUWRFC once back in Boston. Joining rugby has given her a community, a stronger work ethic, and more confidence. Caroline is currently a Marketing Major with Mechanical Engineering Minor expected to graduate in 2018;  Binglei Zhou grew up in Shanghai, China. She has an older brother that served as her best role model. Binglei Zhou played NCAA Division III soccer at Suffolk University. She later transferred to Northeastern University and joined the Powerlifting team where she holds the USAPL National Collegiate Raw deadlift record at 463lb in the super heavyweight division. Binglei Zhou rediscovered her love for rugby during her last year of college. She is a double major in Asian Studies and Communications.

North Carolina (women):  Dana Slabbekroon spent the majority of her spring semester abroad in Israel, where she played in a touch rugby league. The league itself was comprised of both Israelis and Palestinians, and aimed to unite peoples through sport…Malia Suhren has a younger brother playing offensive tackle for Wake Forrest University…Annie Gonzales spent her spring break on a book tour promoting a work she co-authored. The subject of the book was her experience creating and marketing a viral app while she was a senior in high school.

Arizona (Men): Kyle Rogers, Junior, Flyhalf/Prop, Team Captain, 2016 Honorable Mention All American Sevens Player, 2016 Stellenbosch Academy (South Africa); Ben Joseph, Junior, Center/Wing, Key player in three CRC campaigns, scored pivotal tries in pool play last year, especially vs Saint Joseph’s; Dante Weeks, Junior, Wing, 2015 Honorable Mention All American Sevens, breakout player in 2015 CRC with his speed, returns after missing last year due to injury


Guinness Six Nations: Wales equals wins record after Italy scare in Rome

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ROME (AP) — Wales equaled its all-time record for consecutive wins after overcoming a plucky Italy 26-15 in Six Nations rugby on Saturday.

Italy scored the only try of the first half to trail by 12-7 at halftime. Wales didn’t score a try until the 53rd minute and finished with only two. Italy scored a second try, too, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Wales from an 11th successive victory, tying the Welsh record set 109 years ago.

Italy extended its own record streak with a 19th straight defeat in the Six Nations since 2015. The 99-year-old tournament record became theirs outright last weekend in Edinburgh.

Wales’ winning streak started against Italy in the 2018 Six Nations.

Coach Warren Gatland made 11 changes after the fortuitous win over France in Paris last weekend, trying to build experience in a Rugby World Cup year.

That Wales finished with its least points and tries in Rome in six years didn’t worry Gatland, who was far more satisfied with starting the championship with two wins away from home before returning to Cardiff to face title rival England in two weeks.

But he warned, “If we play like that against England it could be embarrassing.”

Stand-in captain Jonathan Davies was frustrated.

“I can’t fault the boys’ effort,” he said. “That accuracy in the final quarter was probably what we lacked. But we came to a difficult place to play rugby and got the result. Italy made things tough for us.”

But a comfortable win at Stadio Olimpico was on the cards as Dan Biggar kicked Wales to a 12-point lead in the first half hour.

Then Italy struck from an attacking lineout as Dean Budd and captain Sergio Parisse surged. Sebastian Negri and David Sisi helped in getting flanker Braam Steyn over the line, and the game descended into the tight contest the Welsh feared.

Tommaso Allan converted Steyn’s try but hit the post with a penalty just before halftime. He nailed a penalty after the break to cut the deficit to two.

Wales sent on regular captain Alun Wyn Jones and finally hit back and pulled away with converted tries by Josh Adams and Owen Watkin to make the result safe with 10 minutes to go.

Italy coach Conor O’Shea rued what he believed to be a missed opportunity.

“We were very close in points for 50 minutes where we were fully in the match,” O’Shea said. “We had an opportunity in the second half but the energy at that time went in their favor.”

Wales flew down the right touch then attacked down the left, where fullback Liam Williams drew the last man to send Adams into the corner for their first try.

Wales thought it scored another 10 minutes later, but Jonathan Davies was adjudged by the TMO to have knocked on.

The second try came from a delicate chip by replacement flyhalf Gareth Anscombe for Watkin to pounce on.

Italy made the scoreline more respectable when Allan exploited a gap and teed up Edoardo Padovani into the right corner.

Right at the end, Wales flanker Thomas Young was denied a try on debut when a forward pass was caught in the buildup.

Italy already looks consigned to a fourth consecutive wooden spoon. Defending champion Ireland arrives in two weeks. But Steyn, who was a standout for Italy, believes any home match is winnable.

“The hardest challenges,” Steyn added, “are the best.”

Guinness Six Nations: England switch from underdog to favorite against France

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Praise can make you weak. Eddie Jones threw that comment at Ireland last week as a warning about living up to expectations.

Those expectations were then shattered by Jones’ England side as they smashed the Irish in Dublin to kick off the Six Nations.

Naturally, praise has been showered on England for producing its best rugby performance since 2012 when it thrashed New Zealand 38-21 at Twickenham.

Having been hailed far and wide for the remarkable all-round triumph, its England’s turn to cope with all of the pats on the back, to switch from underdog to favorite before France turns up on Sunday at Twickenham.

“By Sunday we’ll be at our best,” Jones promises.

To prove all the praise has had no effect won’t be easy, especially when England isn’t in hostile territory but back in the cozy comforts of home. Its victory has enlarged the target on its back, with four rounds to go.

“We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” hooker Jamie George says. “We must realize that we can’t just rest on that win, believing that because we’ve produced one good performance we’ll be winning the World Cup. We need to build on this.”

The good news — and bad news — is the next opponent is France.

France should have sunk Wales last week in the rain in Paris, but Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez missed 13 points off the tee, and Yoann Huget and Sebastian Vahaamahina gave away two converted tries. Wales, without really firing a shot, won by five points.

Instead of just replacing injured backs Wesley Fofana and Maxime Medard, and prop Uini Atonio, and showing some faith, coach Jacques Brunel has prolonged the turmoil the team can’t escape by tearing it apart and asking new combinations to hit the ground running in a stadium where France hasn’t won in 12 years.

He’s brought Geoffrey Daymourou and Mathieu Bastareaud into the centers, apparently to counter the considerable threat of Manu Tuilagi. They are the only survivors of the backline which beat England last year in Paris. But two more centers are on the wings in Gael Fickou and Damian Penaud. Meanwhile, Huget has been moved to fullback, where the wing hasn’t started for France in almost six years.

Center Romain Ntamack and lock Paul Willemse, who made their debuts against Wales, have been demoted to the reserves.

The French pack was huge and surprisingly mobile against Wales but flanker Yacouba Camara has been given his first cap since the 2018 Six Nations, and lock Felix Lambey and tighthead prop Demba Bamba will make their first starts. Bamba will be marking Mako Vunipola. Of Bamba, Brunel says, “He’s come up against a few good players.” But not Vunipola, who almost subdued the Ireland pack on his own.

If any rescuing is required, France’s reserves offer 25 caps of experience in total. Toulouse prop Dorian Aldegheri and fullback Thomas Ramos are uncapped, and four others have one cap each. Brunel says, “I expect them to bring their enthusiasm late in the game.”

England winger Chris Ashton, who has lost twice to France and never scored against them, expects the Tricolors to be desperate after blowing the Wales game.

“It will be an angry French team,” he says. “They love a reaction.”

Ashton set the Top 14 try-scoring record in his lone season with Toulon in 2016-17, and believes the Top 14 doesn’t prepare the French for test rugby.

“The Top 14 is a slow stop-start game. It’s not anywhere near (test level),” he says. “Maybe that step up shocks them in that first couple of games, but they will get up to speed very quickly.”

If praise can make you weak, then criticism can make you strong. Ashton better hope “very quickly” isn’t on Sunday.