Tulane University entered the DII college post-season with a bunch of questions. What would this team look like when presented with new challenges in a new environment, and should thoughts of regionals be entertained at this stage? And then the Green Wave beat Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia (UGA) to win the South Independent Rugby Conference (SIRC), and a new familiarity began to shape.
“I feel like we always have that attitude for the playoff season,” Tulane senior backs captain Gwen Leifer said of the uncertainty that comes with shifting dynamics. “But for me, after [SIRC] weekend, I was reminded of how cohesive our team always ends up being, which is something I know I forget and I know a lot of the girls on the team forget as well. There’s something that always seems to click in the spring semester. … And it’s that cohesiveness that I think we’ve credited for a lot of our success in the past and it was really cool to see that come out.”
That cohesion has been a work in progress. After graduating 14 players from last year’s spring championship team, Tulane regrouped for a healthy recruitment drive.
“Our fall semester was really just trying to make sure that every single person was comfortable playing every single position,” Tulane senior forwards captain Clare Sullivan said. “So I think that was something that everyone did really well [at SIRCs], especially the new players going into any position they were asked to fill and just performing to the absolute best of their ability.”
The SIRC championships began with a semifinal against Georgia Tech, which had finished behind UGA in the league’s eastern pool. Sullivan described that the first round of the SIRC championship always acts like an ignition.
“This is where the intensity really starts,” she said.
“One thing that was sort of unique about that first game against Georgia Tech is that we have relatively low experience with their team,” Leifer added. “We’ve played UGA a couple times over the years, and we’ve played [SIRC semifinalist] UTC a few weeks before, but Georgia Tech we knew almost nothing about going into that game. So it was a really a test of what our team does well under completely ambiguous circumstances.”
“Georgia Tech has a really good tactical game,” Tulane senior president Caroline LaGow said. “They definitely performed good technical rugby things, which was really awesome, because I think women’s rugby as a whole doesn’t get a great rap of doing that and it’s awesome to see that that’s not a skill set that’s lost in any capacity. It definitely made us think about our a pattern a little bit instead of just performing. We had to think about how to respond in a clinical way.”
Tulane won the SIRC semifinal 46-5 over Georgia Tech, while UGA eliminated UT Chattanooga from title consideration with a 52-14 win. The victors readied for the final on Sunday.
“We always love playing them because they always bring the intensity and they’re always super amped and ready to play,” Sullivan said. “There was a lot of good energy on the field.”
The Bulldogs used that intensity to set the tempo in the first half. The Tulane leaders noted the team’s on-going goal of producing stronger starts, especially on day two of a double-header weekend.
“You could watch the momentum pick up and people clearly got more excited as the game went on. They realized that even though you’re tired you can still do so, so much,” Leifer said.
“UGA has several players who hit really hard and run really hard lines,” the flyhalf continued. “So it was a game, more than some of the other ones this season, where it was more important to really keep that psychological element in it and to not get demoralized after taking a really hard hit. Making sure you jumped right back up and got back in the game. That was something that we ultimately did really well and another one of those areas where it’s really cool to see the newer girls in that environment and do well.”
Tulane pulled ahead in the second half for a 31-19 win and repeat SIRC title.
“One of the biggest things was our defense,” Sullivan said of major takeaways from the weekend. “We could see it click on the new people’s faces. ‘Oh, when I go to this position, this happens. I’m here for a reason.’ They understood what they were supposed to do because they were actually doing it rather than learning about it theoretically.”
“It’s really awesome to watch your team continuously grow,” LaGow added. “I think this was the first time that we really solidified everything and saw that every single new person here has done a wonderful job and gone above and beyond everyone’s expectations.”
Next up are spring regionals in Little Rock, Ark., one of three sites hosting Spring Round of 16 games on April 19-21. Tulane will be joined by Mid-America’s John Brown University and Kansas State, which contest their league championship this Saturday to determine seed to regionals. SIRC’s third-place team, Georgia Tech, which had beat UTC 37-12, is not attending due to low numbers, so that vacancy needs to be filled. UGA will feature in Greenville, N.C.
“Playoff season has a special significance for the three of us,” Leifer referred to fellow interviewees Sullivan and LaGow. “We are seniors and we’re some of the only ones that were on the team for that first playoff run back in 2016. One of my concerns has always been the sustainability of the program. We know a lot of women’s rugby teams around the country, and unfortunately there is a lot of turnover and a lot of programs fold. But it’s been really exciting over the past couple of months to see how much support and how much buy-in we have from the younger members of the team, which really shows me how sustainable our team can be in the future. I’m really excited about that.”