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2022-2023 Men's Preview

By National Collegiate Rugby, 08/30/22, 9:00AM EDT

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The road to the Collegiate Rugby Championship XVs opens in the coming weeks, with more than 400 men’s teams coast to coast vying for four national titles. Last year’s senior heroes have graduated, with DI powerhouses Kutztown, Queens and St. Bonaventure all with players selected in the first round of Major League Rugby’s Collegiate Draft. Nolan Buckley of Division II UMass-Lowell was also picked, as was a pair of Division II national champions from Thomas More, amongst others.

Their jerseys will be filled by fresh-faced, first-years eager for playing time. As training camps commence and the opening kickoff creeps closer across the country, we take a shallow dive into each men’s division and what you might expect in 2022. 

 

Men’s Division I

Topping the preseason Power 10 are the defending champion Bonnies, who edged Penn State 19-18 to claim the program’s first-ever national title last fall. Gone is the dynamic and flamboyant scrumhalf, Sebastiano Villani, picked second overall by the NOLA Gold; but, the cupboards are far from bare in Allegheny. 

Little brother Lorenzo Villani will continue to be a tough tackle outside the All-Rugby East center pairing of Keelin Coyle and Lucas Otineru. Coyle also earned All-American honors last season and Otineru is fully recovered from a broken toe. Lucas’ brother Niku casts an imposing shadow from No. 8, while New Zealand-born freshman fly-half Manulua Taula will compete for the starting job.

Amongst top contenders to knock off St. Bonaventure is Rugby East rival and third-ranked Kutztown. The Golden Bears fell narrowly to St. Bonaventure twice last season, by five in conference play and by 12 in the semifinals. While Kutztown lost three players to the MLR draft, the nucleus that won the Collegiate Rugby Championship 7s is well intact, including All-Rugby East wing and CRC MVP Mate Kvirikashvili. Word is head coach Doc Jones has added a stacked freshman class. 

From 2008-2019, Dartmouth reeled off 12-straight Ivy Rugby Championships. Six of those years, Brown finished second, before dusting off Dartmouth, 15-13, to claim the program’s first Ivy title in 25 years. This season, the Ivy as a conference is no more, with most of their teams splitting up throughout the reorganized Liberty, making for a power struggle in an already well-established and esteemed Liberty Conference. 

In the league’s top two divisions last year’s finalists from both the Ivy and Liberty are split up. Runners up Dartmouth and Northeastern are the favorites to come out of the Right, where Harvard is also slotted, and champs Brown and Iona are the frontrunners to emerge from the Left. While the Ivy conference has officially dissolved, Harvard, Brown and Dartmouth will play an interdivisional round robin to decide the ceremonial Ivy title going forward. 

Some of the biggest contenders for St. Bonaventure’s crown could be newly elevated varsity programs in the newest power conference, the Big Rivers. Pooled in this league stretching from the cornfields of Iowa to the coal mines of West Virginia are all funded, scholarship-offering programs with full-time coaches. 

Most of these programs are relatively young. Wheeling added rugby in 2012. Iowa Central launched its program in 2015, Thomas More in 2016, Marian and Adrian in 2021, and Aquinas will take the field for the first time this fall. But with the aforementioned resources, varsity programs tend to compete on a national scale quickly, evidenced by first-year Adrian falling just four points shy of Thomas More in the Division II national championship game last fall.

 

Men’s Division I-AA (Club)

The Virginia Tech Hokies are looking to repeat as national champions, having defeated West Chester 34-22 in last year’s final. Both are expected to be back in the mix this season, with several new teams entering the fray as legitimate challengers. 

Tennessee is the reigning Southeastern Collegiate Rugby Conference champion, and they enter the season at No. 2 in the Power 10, splitting last year’s finalists. The Volunteers are among the blue bloods of college rugby, and since the SCRC was formed in 2011, the Vols have claimed four conference titles. 

Another new challenger from just across the Kentucky border is Louisville, runners-up in the MAC last fall with a 6-1 record. The Cardinals are led by Emil Walton, who assists the Experts in the Premier Rugby 7s. 

Columbia has joined the Liberty Club East division, alongside fellow Ivy Yale. Look for the Lions to compete for a division title right away. 

Another Division I-AA newbie to keep an eye on is Siena, Small College Challenge Cup champions a year ago. The Saints were the Cinderella story of the 2021 season, a long-running program with a modest pedigree riding an impressive international flare to dominance and a title. Siena will be punching much closer to its weight in Division I-AA, but with a stable full of young studs like co-captains Ian Frost and Rupert Bronkhorst. 

 

Men’s Division II
Reigning finalists Adrian and Thomas More moved up to Division I, so Division II will crown a new champion in 2022. There was no champion in 2020, thanks to COVID, and now-Division I Queens won in 2019. So you have to go all the way back to 2018 and North Carolina State to find a historical champion that’s still competing for the Division II crown. 

Perched atop the preseason Power 10 is Norwich, defending New England Wide Champion, which fell 21-17 to Adrian in last year’s semifinal. The Cadets were unbeaten against Division II opponents heading into the final four, and with leading try scorer and Belgian sensation Leo Clayburgh back for his senior season, there’s no reason to suspect they can’t return for a fifth semifinal appearance in 2022. 

With the entire Southeastern Collegiate Rugby Conference joining the competition, reigning champ Auburn is both an unknown and a team to keep an eye on. Conversely, the Principia Thunderchickens are complete knowns, both because they’ve been a consistent playoff team out of the Gateway Conference and last year’s stellar international recruiting class. 

From 2013-2015, the University of Minnesota-Duluth won back-to-back-to-back national titles under head coach Jeramy Katchuba. He stepped away from the program for a few years, and while it remained competitive, the Bulldogs weren’t the same. With Katchuba’s return, Duluth is among the favorites to be in the mix come December. 

 

Men’s Small College
2022 should mark one of the hottest races for the Cohen Cup in recent years, with both of last year’s finalists back, and two-time champion Claremont Colleges reemerging from COVID. It took more than 80 minutes to separate Christendom and New Mexico Tech in the 2021 Small College final, with the Crusaders outlasting the Miners 34-29 on the final play of the game. 

In 2019, it was Christendom coming up short in the final against Claremont, but by a much larger margin, 57-17. The Lions were unable to play competitively all last season, and without them in the way, Christendom made good. Are the Crusaders paper tigers or the rightful heirs to Claremont’s vacated throne? We’ll find out this fall. 

Getting back to the playoffs is no slam dunk for any team, but certainly not Christendom, partially because of the graduation of all-everything second row Owen Kennedy. His second-year little (but nowhere near little) brother John has some big boots to fill. Also because the Cardinals Rugby Conference is one of the more competitive leagues in the nation.

Nearby looms contenders from the MARC conference, home to a classic rivalry and powerhouses Loyola and Catholic, both of which are capable of knocking off the Crusaders. 

Mid-America powerhouse Wayne State College also looks poised for a playoff run. The Wildcats made it all the way to the finals of the Small College Challenge Cup last fall. The former second tier of the Small College division will now be played as a regional Challenge Bowl Series. So if Wayne is going to return to the final four, it will have to beat stiffer competition. 

Bolstering the Wildcats will be a bevy of returning international talent, including flyhalf Vuyo Mdlalose, one of 13 South Africans on the roster last season. If Coach Darrin Barner is able to back up that recruiting class with anything similar, Wayne State will be a title contender once more.