Alex Tapper and Neal Goodwin
With a thrilling 9-3 victory over Auburn on March 5, the Vanderbilt Rugby Club took home the Southeastern Conference crown and secured a Top 25 ranking from rugbymag.com. Sophomore flyhalf Scott Trench scored all nine points for the Commodores off of penalty kicks (worth three points each) in the defensive battle that saw no tries (the rugby equivalent of a touchdown) scored.
“It was a really intense game — a very defensive match. Auburn was our only loss this semester, and we had a few injuries that game,” said club president Alex Tapper. “Other than that, we’ve been running over people. It was tough to lose to Auburn the first time, so it was good to beat them on the second try.”
Auburn held a tremendous home-field advantage over the Commodores, with the game being played in Auburn, Ala. Tiger fans numbered in the hundreds, while just seven fans represented Vanderbilt on the sidelines. The lack of fan support did not faze the team, which has dealt with poor attendance even for home games this season.
“Most people don’t even know we have a rugby team, to be honest,” said team captain Neil Goodwin. “We try to make Facebook events for home games, but in past years we haven’t been very good. Last year, we did much better, we made it to the South quarterfinals, and now we’re moving on even further.”
With the win, Vanderbilt has secured its place in the USA Rugby South semifinals. The Commodores will face No. 16 Eastern Carolina University this Saturday in Mobile, Ala., with the winner advancing to the championship game Sunday afternoon. The other South semifinal features No. 7 South Florida and Middle Tennessee State.
If the Commodores can beat Eastern Carolina, they will advance to the USA Rugby Division II tournament. Both the first and second place finishers from each region advance to the tournament, which will feature 16 teams, split into East and West pools. Because Vanderbilt would be in the East, their opening round games would be played in Sanford, Fla. April 16-17. Should the Commodores advance to the national semifinals, they would play at Founders Field in Pittsburgh, Pa.
“Unfortunately, that (tournament) would be during Rites (of Spring). But I’ve heard Kid Cudi sucks in concert anyways,” Tapper said.
The Commodores only advanced to the SEC final on the last play of their semifinal matchup with Louisiana-Lafayette University, which was played at a neutral site in New Orleans, La. The Ragin’ Cajuns took a 18-12 lead with less than two minute remaining in the game, and Vanderbilt hit the ensuing kickoff out of bounds. The Ragin’ Cajuns were awarded a lineout (similar to a throw-in in soccer) which was then stolen by Vandy senior Christian Lehr.
The Commodores drove down the field, drawing a penalty near the Ragin’ Cajun goal line. The Commodores quickly restarted the ball, and freshman Jake Rosner dove across the goal line to put Vanderbilt down by just one with the conversion after try still to come. In rugby, tries are worth five points, and the “extra point” kicks are worth two. Sophomore Scott Trench converted the kick to give Vanderbilt a 19-18 win, sending the Commodores to the SEC championship game.
“The difference this year, compared to previous years is that a lot of guys stayed with the team until the spring,” said Goodwin. “We usually lose a lot of guys to the Greek system. It was a great feeling (to win the SEC championship) for those of us who have been on the team a few years and have been dedicated.”