For the second year in a row, the Ohio State men’s club rugby team is preparing to play in the Big Ten Universities Rugby Conference Championships on Saturday.
A tight race for the top two spots in the conference came to a close Saturday when the Buckeyes narrowly defeated Michigan 35-31 to solidify their opportunity to play for the conference title.
Senior flanker and co-president of the rugby club Jake Berlin said the final minutes of the game against Michigan were a culmination of the squad’s season.
“In the final seconds, your position on the field didn’t matter; it was all about grabbing the man next to you and doing whatever you could to crush that seed of doubt and prevent Michigan from crossing that line,” Berlin said. “Everything we worked toward came together in those final seconds.”
Last season, the Buckeyes fell short in the championship game against Wisconsin, but this year the team feels stronger and better prepared after instituting a tougher practice schedule and 6 a.m. workouts three days a week.
“Last year, I’d say we wanted to have the focus of being out here and being competitive, but it wasn’t there. This year it’s incredible,” sophomore lock and co-president Nathan Grose said. “Doing that stuff just brought everyone together, you show up at 6 a.m. and yeah it sucks, but it sucks with everyone else. We know we’re all getting better.”
Berlin said he’s seen the work ethic of the program grow over time.
“I can say right now the team is probably closer than it’s ever been in my four years, there’s kind of this old rugby culture that was around before I came in. It was a lot about more fun than actually working hard,” Berlin said. “I think myself and the captains have kind of gotten rid of that and started a culture that’s ‘work hard, play hard.’”
Coach Ron Bowers, who played rugby at OSU from 1987-1991, said he is impressed with how the level of collegiate rugby has risen both since his playing days and over the last few years.
“There are bigger, faster, stronger athletes,” Bowers said. “In Ohio now, there’s a lot more high school rugby, so they’re coming to us with three or four years of experience already, which makes a huge difference.”
Despite the rise of high school rugby, many of those athletes got their starts playing football in high school, including senior 8-man/flanker and captain Santino Cua.
“In high school I kind of wanted to play collegiate football and thought rugby would be a good way to hone in my skills. But I fell in love with the sport and chose to play it over collegiate football,” Cua said.
While rugby is growing — plans for the first professional league in North America were announced Monday — it remains a relatively unknown sport in the U.S. However, Grose said those who start with it usually stick with it.
“In high school, you see guys quit football to play rugby, but nobody ever quit rugby to play another sport,” Grose said. “I decided to try it out here, and I fell in love with it, fell in love with the team and it’s been awesome.”
Cua said the team’s camaraderie and passion for the sport and team were the keys against Michigan and will be the keys moving forward.
“The win over Michigan only happened because we had 15 guys who refused to let their brothers down. The bond amongst our players proved stronger than Michigan on Saturday,” Cua said. “It is one of those intangible characteristics that define a championship team, which is exactly what we plan to be come Saturday afternoon.”
The Buckeyes are set to take on the Indiana Hoosiers for the Big Ten Universities Rugby Conference Championships on Saturday at 1 p.m. in Rockford, Illinois.