North Texas Daily

Club rugby team continues to impress, rise

Club rugby team continues to impress, rise

Club rugby team continues to impress, rise
November 11
00:12 2014

Jesse Brackeen / Intern Writer

On Sunday, it was announced that the UNT club rugby team will play the University of Massachusetts Nov. 22 in the American Collegiate Rugby Championship Bowl Series.

With an undefeated season and National championship berth, junior Jeremy Johnson said the team can feel the culture change on the field under head coach Michael Englebrecht.

“Over the last year, we have had a major coaching change which has resulted in a completely different culture around the team,” Johnson said. “Last year, it was a lax, typical hooligan rugby team. But coach has brought class to this team. He has set high expectations for the team. When we meet those expectations, he sets them higher.”

The team went undefeated in the Southwest Conference, which is comprised of all club teams. For the most part, the team cruised past its conference foes, defeating programs such as Rice University 89-8 and Texas A&M University 74-6, on its way to a 5-0 conference record.

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Members of the UNT Rugby Team from the left to right: Sinisa Tesic, Drew Coon, Brandon Pollay, Bryan Kelly, Michael Bliss, Greg Chavez, and Walter Saravia.

The team acknowledges some of the competition has not been at its highest through the early going, but Johnson said that will change once the team plays UMass.

“First and foremost, we need to have a defensive game plan set,” Johnson said. “The team we will be playing, those guys have been playing since grade school. Whereas in Texas, you grow up playing football, up north those guys grow up playing rugby. So they know the game.”

Assistant coach Andrew Marshall said that despite most of the team not getting into the game until college, the team has grown into a strong unit.

“These are athletes that didn’t play rugby in high school. They come to college and they hear about the rugby program. They want to continue to be an athlete so they come here and learn this game,” Marshall said. “Rugby has built-in camaraderie. When they walk onto field for their match, they are on their own. They don’t have a coach telling them a play, they don’t have structure and they have to work as a team.”

The club was established in Denton in 1920. However, today, Marshall said that rugby lacks recognition it the U.S.

“As an international sport, rugby is massively popular,” Marshall said. “Of course, in America we have to compete with the four major sports, and it’s unfortunate that it flies under the radar here.”

While the sport lacks a legitimate following, players say the game has started to gain national attention.  On Nov. 1 the All Blacks, the national team of New Zealand, competed against the U.S. national team in front of 63,000 fans at Soldier Field in Chicago. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will also feature rugby. Senior Walter Saravia says the process of growth, as evidenced by the inclusion of rugby in the Olympics, has already begun.

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Greg Chavez, left, lifts up Bryan Kelly to catch a ball thrown by Walter Saravia, right, during practice yesterday afternoon.

“I had never seen rugby before in my life before UNT,” Saravia said. “But I started seeing it on TV more and more just like this last weekend with the All Blacks coming to play the U.S. Plus, we are getting back into the Olympics. I feel like that is going to launch rugby onto the national platform.”

The North Texas program has has already secured a berth to compete in the national championships in April. Saravia said the team hopes to accomplish more than just winning its bowl game and winning the national championship.

“Our expectation is to win, but this is just a stepping stone. We plan to go so much farther than this bowl game,” Saravia said. “The end goal is to become a varsity team. That’s still a few years off, but that’s what we are ultimately working toward. Varsity team is the top level associated with the NCAA. We would get scholarships for players and players from out of the country. That is what we ultimately want. We want to get this team to the next level.”

Marshall said the brotherhood the team has established, combined with its motivation to consistently improve, sets it apart from other programs.

“We are by far the hardest working team that I have ever played for,” Marshall said. “I have been around sports since I was five and these are the hardest working guys I have ever seen. We work to get better for the team, every day, out here in the cold, freezing our tails off. We are going 100 mph, full-out every practice and it’s really showing through our success.”

Featured Image: Drew Coon throws the ball to a teammate during some rugby drills. Photos by Harris Buchanan

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