Men’s rugby off to great start in revised conference

The Norwich University men’s rugby team is facing a new opponent and missing old foes after changes were made to the conference it plays in this year. So far it is off to a great start, going 7-0 in an undefeated season. The rugby team gained that status with a convincing 39-12 victory over NECRC rival University of Vermont.

The Cadets’ victory clinched the NECRC 2016 Conference Championship and gives them an automatic bid to the USA Division II Collegiate Rugby National Sweet Sixteen.

“Norwich has competed in the New England Rugby Collegiate Conference (NECRC) for several seasons,” said Tanner Acebo, the Athletic Communications Department multimedia specialist. But the men’s rugby team had a change in their conference leading two teams to leave the conference: Boston University and Coast Guard Academy. After playing in a different division, the East Coast Rugby Conference (ECRC) for a while, “Middlebury College has come back to the [NECRC]” Acebo said.

“Middlebury will be joined by the University of Vermont, the University of Rhode Island, the University of New Hampshire and Norwich University in the NECRC. “In a way, our conference got stronger; [however,] losing Coast Guard was a loss because they were our only real military team that we faced in the season” said Taualupe Tau, a junior communication major. Said Bob Weggler, the Norwich rugby coach, “It’s just something [Coast Guard] needed to do as a school.”

The Middlebury rugby team made the decision to come to NECRC by a blind vote that involved the entire team and coaching staff and with the majority voting to move conferences, according to a press release from the Middlebury College Rugby Club’s website. “We believe this new direction will help to stabilize the trajectory of the club after a lengthy period of coaching instability and provide all members with a rewarding experience,” the statement from the club said.

As a result of the move, Norwich finally will get an in-state rivalry. “We still play some of the same teams such as University of Vermont, University of New Hampshire and University of Rhode Island,” Acebo said. The new conference structure will allow Norwich to play each school in the conference twice, meaning each team will play once at home and once on the opposing school’s pitch. The winner of the NECRC moves onto the USA Fall Rugby National Championship.

This year’s senior captains are senior pack leader James Rowan from Fairfax, Va., senior Eric Pierone from Rotterdam, N.Y., senior flanker Richard Berlandy from Farmington, Conn., senior hooker Matt Rambin from Fairfax, Va., and junior Tom St. Pierre from Warwick, R.I. The team has returned 26 players from that squad while bringing in eight newcomers. Norwich is one of the few men’s rugby teams that has achieved varsity status, while some schools are still at the club level, such as Middlebury.

According to the Norwich University athletics website, Weggler cited some key freshmen that might crack the lineup early. “Freshman Keyon McCloud-Holman, Philadelphia, Pa., at prop, earned our man of the match honors in our scrimmage against Colgate, so he will factor in early. “However, for many of the other players, it is a big jump going from the high school level to the college level so they might need a little more time to adjust to the style of play.” he added.

“Morale has come up a little bit just because it does make things easier and with the weeks off it means we won’t have players missing due to the Army ROTC Field Training Exercise … We are just taking it day by day. We dropped two teams and gained one team,” said team member Jacob McMullen. a junior. Tau felt the changes will mean better competiton, “with Middlebury College coming from a Division I down to a Division II conference, they will be a challenge and give us a run for our money; everyone wants to win [so] no one is really down with the two teams leaving and Middlebury coming in.”

Gordon Winget, a senior wing and full-back on “B” side, said “with the changes in the conference it will be a lot harder, with Coast Guard gone we have to focus more on another team like URI … The team will have to focus and concentrate more, the team is coming in with the mindset of every day we have to push ourselves harder than the last day.”

Even though the conference has had some adjustments made to it, the Norwich men’s team has not changed their playing style. “Every game is a new game and every week is a new week that’s what we need to look toward. Our goal is to win the conference, so that’s what we remind ourselves every day at practice and game,” Winget said.

At 7-0, it looks as if that goal is in sight.

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