Men’s club rugby enters season with eyes on a national title

The Tigers will open up play against Kansas State on Sept. 30 in one of their toughest games of the regular season.
Courtesy of MU Club Rugby

On April 9, 2017, Missouri club men’s rugby saw its season come to an end in the Division I-AA national semifinals. That day, Florida State emerged victorious over the Tigers, advancing to the championship against University of California, Davis.

As a new season dawns this fall, both the Seminoles and Aggies have moved up to the more competitive, scholarship-heavy Division I, leaving Mizzou, with 13 of its 15 starters returning from that semifinal run, in prime position to go further in 2017-18.

“We’ll have a lot of experience on the field, guys that have played together and built a lot of chemistry,” senior club president Adam Cooley said. “We’re really hoping to chase a national championship, especially since some of the talent that we’ve got has been playing together since their freshman year.”

The club was founded in 1966 and in 2010 moved up to the Division I-AA level of the college division of USA Rugby, the sport’s national governing body. Coach Don Corwin, who has had decades of experience as a rugby player, referee and coach, including four years playing for Missouri’s club team from 1979-83, identified this year’s squad as one of the best he has been involved with.

“I’ve had teams where we had a better overall group of athletes but not substantially better,” Corwin said. “[This year’s team] is right up there with the top ones as far as athletic ability and size, but what sets them apart probably more than anything else is that we have a lot of experience.”

The regular season will consist mainly of opponents from the Heart of America Conference, which is made up of Midwestern schools such as Kansas, Iowa State and Nebraska. To reach the national tournament in the spring, the Tigers will most likely have to win the conference in the regular season. They will play 10 games (not including a preseason contest against a St. Louis adult team on Sept. 9) between now and mid-March, but none is more critical than the first, on Sept. 30 in Columbia against Kansas State.

“That’s going to be one of our hardest games of the year,” senior captain James Glavin said. “That sets everything in motion if we’re going to have a winning season and go to the national championship or not.”

The sport of rugby has two forms at the college level: union, the more traditional 15-on-15 game with 40-minute halves, and sevens, a 7-on-7 miniature version that uses seven-minute halves and debuted as an Olympic sport in 2016. Union play is the bulk of Missouri’s season and the discipline in which both the Heart of America and the national championship compete.

Mizzou and Kansas State are expected to be the class of the conference, and with this being their only meeting of the season, both teams’ playoff hopes hinge on this early-season contest.

“I don’t see any of [of the other teams in the conference] beating Kansas State or us,” Corwin said. “If we don’t beat them, I don’t see anybody else beating them either. So that would mean that they would go to nationals; it would all hang on this game.”

The situation Corwin describes already played itself out a year ago, when Missouri’s narrow 14-7 win over Kansas State became the Wildcats’ only blemish on their conference record. As a result, the Tigers advanced to the national tournament while Kansas State stayed home.

“Without [the conference title], we would have to apply for an at-large bid, and that usually is taken up by independent Division I-AA teams, who aren’t with a conference,” Glavin said. “So if we weren’t able to win the conference outright, then it looks like it would be very hard for us to get a bid to nationals.”

While the club is naturally focused on its championship hopes this season, there is also new talent being developed and plenty of opportunities for new players to get involved.

“We’re an open club in the sense that anyone who wants to come and practice and play rugby and learn the game is welcome to do so,” Cooley said. “Of course it gets competitive for who’s going to start on the field ... but we try and field both an A side, which is our first team, and then a B side as well in most of our matches.”

Given the importance of the Kansas State game, there is something a bit jarring about the fact that it will be played this early in the season.

“I was a little taken aback by it, by the fact that it got scheduled then,” Corwin said. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, I’d rather have played Washington University or Truman State first,’ but at the same time, if nothing else, the good thing is that we’re not nursing injuries, and physically we’re fresh going into this game.”

Last season’s trip to the national semifinals was the best ever, in terms of postseason advancement, in the club’s history. A win over Kansas State could clear the path for this year’s Tigers to cement their place in the club’s long history as national champions.

Edited by Eli Lederman |

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