UMass Rugby defeats URI, prepare for playoffs

By Dan Gigliotti

A strong second half propelled the Massachusetts club rugby team to a win against Rhode Island and a top seed in the New England Rugby Football Union playoffs. The Minutemen have little time to celebrate, however, as they jump into playoff action this Saturday against Bentley.

UMass (5-1) was persistent in its attack, fending off a pesky URI team, 32-12, to secure the best record in the Men’s Division II standings.

Overall, The Minutemen managed the game well, although URI (4-2) stayed right with them during the first half.

“It takes time to figure it out,” Coach Al Baker said. “[We] needed to calm down after the first.”

The Minutemen started off the scoring in the first half by taking a 7-0 lead and kept control of the ball. But about 25 minutes into the half, URI found an opening in the UMass attack and ran off to a breakaway that eventually led to a game-tying try.
UMass put the pressure right back on the Rams before halftime with another try of its own and after 40 minutes, the score showed UMass up, 12-7.

Coming out of the break, the Minutemen made noticeable adjustments. Understanding of the strategies URI took in the opening frame, they realigned and their game plan began to take its course. Baker alluded to a certain “feel” that comes with knowing how the other team is playing.

“It’s like full contact chess,” Baker said. “If any parts of your game don’t work, they will get exposed to the other team; they will take advantage of it.”

The Minutemen heeded the words of their coach coming out of the mid-game huddle and stormed the pitch with full force. A quick penalty kick by Clark Hoopes put three points on the board and a try shortly thereafter pushed the lead out to double digits at 22-7.

A Rams try about mid-way through the second half indicated that the game was still anybody’s to win.

Holding a big lead, UMass began to get a bit anxious, throwing errant passes and mishandling the ball. From the sideline, Baker urged his players to settle down.

The Minutemen regained composure and pulled away with the ball. A second penalty kick conversion and a try gave UMass a 25-12 lead that it held for the remainder of the game. The play continued to be very physical as time wound down, but the Minutemen did not relent.

As the final whistle blew, the players in maroon and white stripes congratulated one another, experiencing a foreign feeling of success. No UMass player had been part of a winning season, and Baker encouraged his team to relish in the satisfaction of their accomplishment.

Baker credited powerful play by his forwards as well as the depth of his team for its success.

“We’re able to change our strategies. There’s a lot in our arsenal,” Baker said.

UMass rugby had been in a state of turmoil for the past five years. Since 2004, it won three conference games including winless seasons from 2005-2007. Following the 2006 season, the Minutemen were relegated from Division I to Division II in the NERFU. At the start of the season, Baker said his goal was to bring the team back up to Division I.

UMass will have to continue its focus this Saturday if it wants to achieve its ultimate objective as it takes on a competitive Bentley College squad. Bentley is an experienced program that has a tradition of winning in recent years. Conversely to UMass, Bentley moved up in Divisions following consecutive National Championships in 2005 and 2006.

Since the Falcons have played in Division II, they have gone 6-4.
Bentley moves into the playoffs with a 3-1-2 record, good for 4th on the overall division leader board after finishing second to Boston University in the Eastern Conference.

The Falcons will travel into Amherst this weekend, as the Minutemen enjoy home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Division II playoffs include eight teams, four of which will get a chance to play in the Northeast regional tournament. The winner of Saturday’s match will face either Norwich Academy or Boston University in the semifinals next Saturday.

Daniel Gigliotti can be reached at [email protected]