Sixty rugby players gather in front of the coaches, many gasping for air following the two-hour practice. UConn Rugby Head Coach, Bob Merola, looks out over the group, waiting for them to settle so he can speak.
“We’re not here to play,” Merola shouts as he continues to survey his group of guys. “We’re here to play for a championship.”
These are not empty words. These aren’t words Merola says to hype up the guys for an inevitable defeat. He, and the rest of his team, truly feel as though they have a chance to contend for the men’s Division 1A championships this year, and he has good reason to believe it.
The UConn men’s rugby team has slowly been improving since Merola took over as head coach in Spring 2015. In the four years prior to the coaching staff changes, the UConn men’s team only managed to win four games in 26 attempts with a horribly bad -717 point differential.
The team continued to struggle during the first couple years of the coaching change, going 2-6 in Fall 2015 and 1-6 in 2016 in the 15-man games. Merola knew it would take time for his basic “back to rugby” approach to take effect, and in the Fall of last year he, and the team, were rewarded with their first winning record in multiple years, going 5-3.
“The goal the last couple years was, ‘we want to be competitive,’” Team President Nick Wehrle said. “Now it’s, ‘we want to win hardware.’”
The 7-man team narrowly missed out on a chance to go to the national championship last year, losing by one score in the final game of their final tournament.
“It’s been a pretty impressive process by the boys,” Merola said of his team. “We’ve really built up our coaching staff and the players have really responded with a lot of great work.”
The rugby team fields the 15-man team in the fall and competes for the 15s national championship, held in the Spring. Also in the Spring, they field the 7-man team to compete in the Liberty Conference tournaments. The team with the best record in these tournaments earns a trip to the 7s national championship. The UConn men’s team is looking to compete for both championships this year and to prove that UConn is a team to be feared in the national rugby scene.
“We’re looking to really be respected as a program,” Wehrle said. “More teams than ever know who we are and know we can play. Nobody’s taking us lightly anymore and we want to keep it that way.”
UConn beat Fairfield University in their third game of the season last Saturday, narrowly beating them by a score of 27-20, giving them a record of 2-0 in their division, and 3-0 overall. They play a home game this Friday against Fordham University. Fordham is the team that narrowly beat out the men’s 7’s team for a spot in the national championship last year. The match looks to be a heated battle between the two undefeated teams.
Jesse Turner is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.