The University of Georgia (UGA) finished second to Tulane University in the South Independent Rugby Conference (SIRC) championship, and is readying for the trip to Greenville, N.C., and the regional spring playoffs. The Bulldogs claimed the post-season berth after only one matrix match and relied on internal motivation to ready for the demands of playoffs.
Lindsay White (Ohio State ’15) graduated from assistant coach to head coach this year, and is leading a group of close to 30 consistent players. The many seniors fill approximately half of the starting positions, but a nice influx of quality recruits has assuaged the apprehension of a rebuilding year next season. In particular, a group of hard-hitting forwards have been introduced, and they’ve impacted UGA’s take on the game.
“In the past, UGA has been known as a quick team, but not a big team,” White said. “But now we have a lot of really powerful rookies who are now starting forwards, and it’s fun to see this shift.
“What has been most helpful this year is getting those players to come and play in our system,” the coach continued. “Fitness is a big focus for me and I made that clear in the fall. We like to play really quick rugby, and have an amazing 9 [Jennifer Barto] and 10 [Joe Tam] who know what I want to see on the field and execute it really intelligently. We really encouraged the big, strong forwards to meet us at that level, and they took it upon themselves to make fitness a priority, and it shows on the field.”
Props Micayla Davidson and rookie Sydney Spencer set the example. They both have really high work rates around the pitch and are crucial to UGA’s dominating scrum. As mentioned, the halfbacks are expert managers and deploy the attack, and outside center Katelyn Mason has diversified UGA’s options by adding a nice kicking element to the arsenal.
“On the field, I really do think we have a team of 15 leaders. There’s no one I don’t trust to take charge,” White said. “I’m not just talking about playmakers, but the leadership of stepping up – hitting the ruck when things go crazy, or being the point person in the pod when things need organizing. It makes a huge difference in the outcome.”
UGA had a decent fall schedule but the spring was frustrating. Three game weekends were cancelled or moved, resulting in just one matrix match before playoffs.
“It’s the biggest downfall and a huge issue in the South in general,” White said of the anemic schedule. “Outside of Georgia Tech, no one [in SIRC] is within three hours of each other. It’s really tough when SIRC itself is constantly shifting with numbers, so there’s no consistency.
“There was certainly some disappointment not playing more games,” White said of the players’ reactions. “UGA has worked really hard to overcome those issues that all teams in the South face. So they’re frustrated that we can’t all be on the same page – to prioritize recruitment and make matches happen.”
With 30 players at practice UGA was able to field intra-squad scrimmages, and they were competitive.
“One of my favorite things about them – and they are very special in this regard – is that they get what they need from me – coaching rugby – and they get everything else from each other,” White said of the team’s internal motivation. “With the leadership they have and the UGA rugby attitude, they are always ready to go. They were so excited for playoffs.”
The Bulldogs and Georgia Tech represented SIRC East during last weekend’s conference championship, while Tulane and UT Chattanooga represented SIRC West.
“Something I’ve seen change from last season to this one: They really believe they’re going to win the game,” the coach continued. “When there’s no fear or doubt that they can win, they can worry about execution and the game plan, and working within those plans. They’ve done a good job of channeling how excited they were into playing good rugby.”
White was particularly impressed that that enthusiasm didn’t translate into a frantic start, but rather smart, mature rugby evolved. While scoring the majority of its points in the first half, UGA did not surrender a single penalty. The Bulldogs beat UTC 52-14, while Tulane topped Georgia Tech 46-5.
“Last year when we played Tulane at playoffs, it was a tough match-up because we had completely different strengths. They were a very big team and we were not,” White said. “[Tulane coach] Jessica [Mallindine] had a great group of seniors last year so they were also very smart rugby players, and I don’t think our rugby IQ or pace of play were up to it. This year, we have similar strengths to Tulane. We like to go quickly and play a lot of in the breakdown. We have very quick backs that we like to advantage of by playing wide.”
White recalled a fairly even first half, 12-all, and then the Green Wave pulled away in the second half for the 31-19 win.
“I think what was tough was Tulane has played more tough matches than we have this season, and it makes a difference,” White said. “We didn’t talk about any major adjustments at halftime; Tulane just scored some tries. There was no breakdown in our heart or grit, no breakdown in our fitness. When playing a team that is really similar to ourselves, sometimes it doesn’t go your way. But it was great to have a really gritty game like that.”
Everyone rose to the occasion but a handful of players flourished in the pressure-filled weekend. White praised rookie prop Spencer, who led the defensive launch and planted every tackle; senior flanker Marlyse Sifre, who is sometimes overlooked because she is so consistently good, and led the way in pace of play last weekend; scrumhalf Barto, who has an amazing pass and inspires teammates to think and act as thoughtfully as she does around the pitch; and outside center Mason, whose well placed kicks kept UGA in the game and released speedy chasers. White was also happy with the quick chase and team’s ability to retain possession on those kicks.
The match also provided some valuable insight into how the team can tighten up its game in advance of the Spring Round of 16 on April 20-21. UGA is heading to Greenville, N.C., to compete in one of two DII pools competing at East Carolina University.
“We’re a quick team and getting on the fringes and exploding through has been successful for us. But we found that when a team has a set defense, running that way was not as successful,” White explained. “That go-forward needs to get better – little more squaring up and running through will help us.”
Tulane will head to Little Rock for its regional championship (stay tuned for a group interview with the Green Wave’s leaders). Georgia Tech finished third with a 37-12 win over UT Chattanooga and it’s rumored that SIRC has three berths to regionals. Read more about how the spring playoffs have shifted this year, and stay tuned for the brackets and seeds.