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Bryant University repeated as DII Rugby Northeast conference champion and did it with a team that had graduated 14 seniors in spring 2018. The returners were charged with a hefty rebuild for fall 2018, but fortunately the squad responded positively and an environment of learning and flexibility evolved.
“It’s funny. We were nervous heading into this year,” Bryant head coach Rosie Downey said. “We knew we’d have 14 veterans coming back, and they focused on their fitness during the summer because they knew they were going to have to play a lot this season.”
The team picked up six rookies to complete a 15s roster and offer some relief in the form of subs. Bryant’s first league game against St. Anselm was postponed so Downey found a replacement in the University of New England, the reigning Tier II NIRA champion.
“We were worried about going against a varsity program, and with just 15 players, but we won 22-17,” Downey said. “That’s how we kicked off the season, and we thought, ‘Maybe we are going to be O.K.’”
But with only 20 players, the team had to be versatile. Bryant couldn’t afford to lose its only playmaker or conversion kicker or lineout thrower, and the players – especially the sophomore class – embraced the opportunity to become well rounded rugby players.
“The best thing about the team is there’s no star. There’s skill and talent in all positions, and everyone knows more than one position,” Downey said. “We’re not forward heavy or back heavy, and so we’re able to adjust to our opponents. If the team has a strong pack, then we’ll use our backs more. If they’re stronger in the backs, then we keep in the forwards.”
That versatility was tested when the starting scrumhalf took an injury and a forward had to step into the halfback position. The replacement doesn’t have that crisp scrumhalf pass but is able to control the flow of the game, which is more important to Downey.
“I’ve been able to take a step back and realize what everyone’s strengths are,” Downey recounted conversations with three-year starters trying new positions. “Sometimes you can get so focused on what you know and what you have to do, but they’re more open to learning now. They’re able to see their own weaknesses and want to work on them.”
The second game of the season, against Fall Round of 32-bound St. Michael’s College, provided plenty of work-ons and marked the team’s toughest game of the season.
“That was a nailbiter,” the coach said of the 40-27 win. “We were ahead decently at half but they have this way of taking advantage of your weakness in a split second. We got tired, and they got closer. They dominated in their forwards so we kept it in our backs.”
The rest of the conference matches were lopsided affairs, but it afforded the team, led by forward captain Nyatasha Jackowicz and backs captain Margaret Mellitt, to educate the rookies and experiment style wise. Both Jackowicz – a utility forward who mostly plays flanker – and Mellitt – a fullback who also plays flyhalf depending on what the team needs – are examples of the team-minded decisions being made.
Rugby Northeast names its champion on win/loss record, and although Bryant won the 2017 title, the team did so with a loss.
“Being undefeated – that’s what they’re looking forward to the most and it’s united them,” Downey said before Friday’s 77-0 win over Stonehill, thus clinching the conference title. “They’re excited but I have to pull them back and make them realize that they’ll have to play defense [at some point]. Those nerves have also encouraged them to try new things on defense, so when the team faces new opposition, it can continue to adjust.”
Bryant will compete in the Northeast pool of the USA Rugby DII Fall College Championships, which begin with a play-in round this weekend. The Bulldogs will host New England Wide’s third-place team, Vermont, and the victor will head to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for the Fall Round of 16/8.
The conference received three seeds altogether, and runner-up Colby will travel to Tri-State runner-up Fairfield University in Connecticut on Saturday, while #3 St. Michael’s will head to Mid-Atlantic champion Bloomsburg in Pennsylvania. Both Colby and St. Michael’s are competing in the Mid-Atlantic pool.
“If you ask them [about goals] it’d be to win it all, but I’m not sure they realize the kind of competition that is out there,” Downey said. “Last year we lost in the [Fall Round of 16] so we’d be excited to make it to the top eight this year.”